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!