We can’t leave Robert McCloskey until we’ve mentioned his most popular book and one that impacted the children’s book world in profound ways–Make Way for Ducklings. While I was getting my graduate degree in children’s literature, I was fortunate to sit under Anita Silvey who actually spoke with McCloskey about his work on this book. While working on the drawings of the mallards, McCloskey purchased a number of ducks and brought them home to his apartment where he kept them in his bathtub. The fidgety ducks were not cooperating too well with the artist’s efforts to sketch them, so he actually gave them some wine to slow them down a bit. As you can see from his very realistic results, it must have worked!
Make Way for Ducklings has been translated into just about every known language and is beloved by children around the world. Bronze models of Mrs. Mallard and her eight little ducklings are a key attraction at the Boston Public Gardens, and a visit there is like a trip to the United Nations–children from all over the world clamor to sit atop the ducklings made so dear by McCloskey’s tender and delightful tale. The choice to do the drawings in the sepia brown was not McCloskey’s (he had actually done the original drawings in full watercolors), but was dictated by the publisher because of war-time shortages–the book came out at the beginning of World War II. And if you notice carefully, the tale is actually a metaphor for the many families separated during the war–Mr. Mallard leaves for a time–but happily the family is reunited in the end. “When they reached the pond and swam across to the little island, there was Mr. Mallard waiting for them, just as he had promised.”
When we adopted our youngest daughter Katie from Ukraine, for some reason Make Way for Ducklings became her favorite book and even before she could speak or understand any English, she would pull it down from the shelf daily to have it read. She never deviated in this choice. If I remember correctly, the first words she actually spoke in English were “all of a dither!”–McCloskey’s description of Mrs. Mallard’s flustered state when she is nearly run over by a careless bicyclist in the Boston Common. When reading the book aloud to her, we would pause at the end of a sentence and Katie would finish it–even before she knew any other words! Imagine the fun when we took Katie to the Public Gardens where she got to ride a swan boat and see where this tale that had so captured her imagination, actually took place. Imagine our embarrassment when Katie–reluctant to leave this magical place–had a full-blown melt-down, kicking and screaming temper tantrum collapsing in the middle of the forever immortalized, romantic and picturesque bridge (pictured here)! Our constrained laughter made picking her up and carrying her off the bridge a challenge!
Some of my favorite summer reading memories involve Carol Ryrie Brink’s classic Caddie Woodlawn. I loved this book so much I remember being really sad when the publishers redesigned it and eliminated the classic Trina Schart Hyman cover, seen here:
Hyman captured the personality of the vivacious, strong-willed, brave, and just a bit reckless, Caddie. With her flowing hair and one strap slipping off her shoulder – Hyman’s Caddie is the one I think of when I remember these stories. Thankfully the publishers have retained the pen and ink sketches within the text so you won’t have to settle for the image of Caddie as portrayed on the current cover. Anyway, I passed countless summer hours reading and rereading the adventures of Caddie and her brothers. The Woodlawns lived on the edge of the American frontier and this provided ample opportunity for Caddie to exercise her free spirit. A tom-boy at heart she resists the domestic realm in favor of the wide open spaces of the prairie, the dangers of rushing rivers, even the unfamiliarity of an Indian camp. Brink based these stories on the recollections of her grandmother, the original Caddie Woodlawn, and captures the spirit of an age of adventure, hardship, and courage. When I finished Caddie Woodlawn the first time, I promptly reread it, I really hated for the stories to end. I remember being thrilled to discover the sequel, Caddie Woodlawn’s Family, at the library and proceeded to devour it.
Robert McCloskey’s Time of Wonder ranks in my mind as one of the best children’s picture books ever. Granted that my “one of the best” is somewhat limitless, I cannot make it through this book without marveling at the artist/author’s marriage of truly extraordinary art with lyrical and evocative language. Those who have been fortunate to live or vacation somewhere on the New England coast in summer will find that the author manages to put to words the feelings associated with many elements that make summer unique and magical. Whether it is a sudden shower over the water, “porpoises puffing and playing around your boat” or the wonder of “where hummingbirds go in a hurricane”, McCloskey captures the very essence of this time of year. Having never visited the Eastern shore in summer before actually reading this book to my children, I subsequently visited there one June as an adult. Riding bicycles through the quaint town of Duxbury, Massachusetts, my husband and I arrived at a very long teak bridge that took us to an outlying sand spit. Stopping on the bridge to take in the marvelous scene of sand, sea and shore, we noticed a small black cloud moving our direction. Suddenly we were in the opening scene of this marvelous book! For those who cannot manage a trip to the Eastern shore in summer, let McCloskey take you there in a Time of Wonder.
In an excellent editorial for the New York Times, David Brooks addresses the decline in the study of the humanities. As the economy suffers students opt for technical and scientific degrees – degrees that have more marketability in a difficult economy. Brooks warns that this trend results in a loss of understanding of our collective humanity. By failing to study English, literature, history, and art we fail to gain an understanding of who we are and why we do the things we do. We lose those essential points of reference that give greater meaning to the human experience and story. Definitely worth a read!
Rebecca’s recent post reminded me of summer classics that have become beloved staples in our home. When I think of some of the very best children’s books about summer themes the works of Robert McCloskey have to rank in the very top: One Morning in Maine, Blueberries for Sal, Time of Wonder, and Make Way for Ducklings. I just finished reading One Morning in Maine to my youngest and the sweetness of the tale, the charming scenes of New England, and the intuitive insight into the mind of a child all evoke the very sweetest memories. The protagonist is little Sal, who has just lost her first tooth and the wonder and delight of this experience causes her to view the world around her through the lens of this childhood rite of passage.
Indeed I have to admit that McCloskey’s work started a romantic love affair with New England for me over 25 years ago, when I began to read these works to my little ones. Sitting in far away California reading tales so quintessentially Atlantic seaboard drew me unconsciously to that coast when our children were between 3-8 years old. We took an Early American history “field trip” there and fell even deeper in love with the history, architecture, and essence of New England. A love affair that began between the pages of these books resulted in our family relocating to Cape Cod 15 years ago and living in the village of Sandwich for eleven wonderful years. Admittedly, it wasn’t all lovely summer scenes the entire sojourn there, but the charm that these books portray does really exist there in a unique way, and I feel blessed to have lived there for those years. What I don’t miss as much–the long winters–seems to fade once again reading the adventures of little Sal in One Morning in Maine. Read it with your little one today, and you’ll see what I mean!
Rea Berg is passionate about children's books and has been republishing classic and historical children's literature for the last 30 years through her company Beautiful Feet Books. She also designs guides for teaching elementary and secondary students history using award-winning classic and historic literature. She holds both an undergraduate degree in English from Simmons College, Boston as well as a graduate degree in children's literature.