James “Jim” John Murphy
September 27, 1947 – May 1, 2022
Beloved children’s book author Jim Murphy, 74, died suddenly on May 1, 2022, at his home in Woodstock, New York. As writer, editor, husband, parent, and friend, Jim’s warmth, wit, and humor impacted all who encountered him. Because Jim was profoundly modest by nature, many who knew him were unaware of the many awards and accolades he and his books received, including being a two-time Newbery Honor Book award winner, a National Book Award Finalist, and a winner of the Robert F. Sibert Informational Book Medal, as well as a recipient of the Margaret A. Edwards Award for his lifetime contribution to young adult literature.
Born in Kearny, New Jersey, Jim (James John Patrick) was an inveterate storyteller. Reflecting on his childhood, Jim captivated listeners by spinning tales of adventure—whether of tramping through the vast acreage of New Jersey’s Meadowlands or of challenging the authority of the Catholic school nuns who tried to tame his independent spirit.
While attending Rutgers University, where he set records in track-and-field, Jim attended a summer publishing program at Radcliffe College. That program, along with a previous chance encounter with a book banned by a teacher, set him on a lifetime of writing and the pursuit of a publishing career. And, after a brief and scary detour as a construction worker working on the 47^th story of a midtown Manhattan skyscraper, Jim returned his sights to children’s books and never looked back.
The same storytelling gifts that Jim shared with family and friends he also brought to his carefully crafted, rigorously researched nonfiction books. Studded with rich detail and deep history and containing the voices and experiences of eyewitnesses, Jim wrote about many historical subjects and published with Scholastic Books, Clarion/HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster. /The Boys’ War: Confederate and Union Soldiers Talk About the Civil War /(Clarion, 1990) explored the experiences of soldiers, some as young as twelve, who fought in the Civil War. /The Great Fire /(Scholastic, 2001) brought to cinematic life the fire that nearly destroyed Chicago and forever changed the way cities would be constructed. In /An American Plague: The True and Terrifying Story of the Yellow Fever Epidemic of 1793 /(Clarion, 2003), he presented America’s first epidemic, which brought the workings of the federal government to a virtual halt. And in /Breakthrough!: How Three People Saved “Blue Babies” and Changed Medicine Forever /(Clarion, 2015)/,/he introduced readers to the African American “janitor” who not only developed a groundbreaking operation to repair heart defects in babies but also oversaw the white heart surgeon from Johns Hopkins who performed them.In these books and many more, Jim captivated young readers with the narratives he shaped and the broader themes he explored, enabling them to experience history as if they were there. Many of his book are now considered classics.
Of Jim’s book /Truce /(Scholastic, 2009), which explored the Christmas truce of World War I, /Kirkus/said: “Spectacular…. It leaves readers with the provocative thought that war need not be inevitable and that a kinder humane spirit could prevail.” Of his work in general, /The Washington Post/said, “No one does children’s nonfiction like Jim Murphy.”
Jim was proud of many things. First and foremost, he was devoted to his family: his two grown sons, Michael Blank Murphy of South Amboy, New Jersey, and Ben Blank Murphy, of Jersey City, New Jersey, and his wife, writer and children’s TV producer Alison Blank. He also loved the century-old home in Maplewood, New Jersey, where they raised their family, gardened, and made peace with the deer. With its many art and book-lined rooms, their home became a welcoming beacon for friends and family, filled with laughter, great meals, holiday gatherings and music from Renaissance choral music, to Afropop, to the Rolling Stones.
Reflecting on his life, Jim said, “Life is made up of journeys. Some are physical, but most are interior journeys of the heart and soul. The important thing is to face each with a positive attitude and try to learn about the world and… laugh and have fun along the way.”
In addition to his immediate family, Jim is survived by his brother and sister-in-law, Jerry and Lorraine Murphy of Fort Bragg, California, Elaine Murphy, his first wife, and two cats and a dog.
Jim loved his newly adopted home of Woodstock, New York, where he took exercise classes, mentored a writing group, and embraced new experiences. His generosity, kindness, and open heart will be missed by all that knew him. Memorials will be held in both Maplewood, N.J. and Woodstock, N.Y. Donations may be made in his name to First Book or Doctors Without Borders.