Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards -The Making of Make Way for Ducklings is a sweet new children’s picture book by Emma Bland Smith with art by Becca Stadtlander. As a McCloskey, I find it fascinating. This is a great book to pair with a read-aloud of Robert McCloskey’s 1941 Caldecott winning book about ducks living in Boston Public Gardens.
As the subtitle explains, it is a book about the making of a classic. I like the fact the Stadtlander’s cover art uses the same forest green as the original.
Robert McCloskey came up with the germ of his most famous story as an art student in Boston observing a duck family in the park. By the time he got to working on Make Way for Ducklings he had moved to New York City.
That man could draw. In the days before Google images, illustrators in New York City would go the New York Public Library’s picture collection for photo reference. I am old enough to remember doing this myself. Robert McCloskey took his research a step further and visited the Museum of Natural History to draw from taxidermy specimens. Finally, he decided he needed to get some real ducks as models.
Robert McCloskey drew his beloved duck illustrations with a litho pencil on zinc plates. They were printed in a sepia-toned ink. Becca Stadlander’s full-color illustrations are done in gouache and colored pencil on watercolor paper. Stadtlander’s art does not resemble Robert McCloskey’s work, but it evokes a midcentury charm appropriate for the story.
Emma Bland Smith’s story emphasizes Mr. McCloskey’s determination to perfect his craft. She also describes how a good editor contributes to a book project. May Massee of Viking Press is credited for her crucial role in bringing McCloskey’s book into print.
What Wine Goes with Duck?
Speaking of editors, I am certain Emma Bland Smith is familiar with my favorite story about the creation of Make Way for Ducklings. Believe it or not, Robert McCloskey fed his ducks red wine so they would slow down and be better models. Amazing story, but no editor would allow this episode to appear in a 21st century kid’s book. The red wine story can be found in Gary Schmidt’s definitive 1990 biography, Robert McCloskey, which Bland Smith credits as a primary source.
Spoiler alert: Robert McCloskey did not eat his ducks. His downstairs neighbors complained about the constant quacking and water from his overflowing bathtub. He released them at a friend’s country home. Full Disclosure: I received a review copy of Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards -The Making of Make Way for Ducklings from the publisher, Calkins Creek, an imprint of Astra Books for Young Readers. Astra bought TOON books this year, so my Giggle and Learn series is also published by Astra.
Hey McCloskey, What’s in a name?
Robert McCloskey is not related to me. He was born in 1914 in Hamilton, Ohio, around the same time my McCloskey grandparents immigrated from Donegal, Ireland. Way back in 12th-century Ireland we likely had a common ancestor named Bloskey O’Kane, but we are not closely related.
Growing up in New Jersey, I learned about Robert McCloskey at the Elizabeth Public Library. Librarians took my library card and invariably remarked, “McCloskey? There’s famous author named McCloskey.” I knew that already because I was a vain, perhaps delusional, child.
I would look up my own name, Kevin McCloskey, in the card catalog. I liked to imagine I had written a book, but suffered from amnesia and had forgotten about my own great work. I’d find Robert McCloskey’s many books when I looked up my name.
Somehow, Robert McCloskey inspired me. If one McCloskey could write a book, so could I. This groundless idea stuck with me for life. In 1991, I published my first children’s picture book, Mrs Fitz’s Flamingos. It, too, is a book about birds in the city, but I never thought to fill my apartment with flamingos.
I do school visits. Kids ask, “What made you want to become and author and illustrator?” I tell them my silly, superstitious idea based on finding the name McCloskey in a card catalog. I ask them their names and repeat them back. Sometimes I can blurt out a writer with their name: Garcia; Song; Johnson; or Singh. Other times I tell them to look their surname up on the internet. They will surely find an author or artist with their own name. And for some of them it might prove a lucky charm.
Lastly, the I want to share a this old paint can label. McCloskey Varnish has nothing to do with me or Robert McCloskey. But I was taught in school every essay needs a good finish and McCloskey varnish makes a wonderful finish!
P.S. I sent a copy of Mrs. Fitz’s Flamingos to Robert McCloskey c/o his publisher, Viking Press. Months later a I received a note from the great Robert McCloskey, his return address simply was Deer Isle, Maine. He wished me success from one McCloskey to another.