Many people know Make Way for Ducklings, but they might not know the lengths to which Robert McCloskey went to get the beloved Mallard family to look just right.
Having already written much of the text, McCloskey was feeling stuck, explains his daughter, Sal McCloskey. (Sal’s all grown up now, but you may remember her from one of McCloskey’s other books, Blueberries for Sal.)
Itching to begin the illustrations, McCloskey went down to the Washington Square Market, bought a crate of ducks and brought them back to his Greenwich Village studio apartment. He washed the ducklings off in the bathtub, put them in a pan and got to work.
The resulting book — the story of the Mallard family’s search for a home in the wilds of Boston — celebrates its 75th anniversary this year. It charmed generations of readers and even inspired a statue in Boston’s Public Garden.
That statue is a favorite spot for Dan Belich and his son, Geoffrey, who recently braved unseasonably cold weather to pay the bronze ducks a visit. “We love coming by here to hang out with these guys,” Dan Belich says (while struggling to remember their names, “Quack, Mack, Jack, Ack? I don’t know,” he admits with a laugh). Fans of the ducks often dress them in seasonally appropriate attire — on the day of our visit they’re wearing Easter bonnets.
Sal McCloskey likes to visit the Public Garden and watch the kids clambering all over the duck family. Mrs. Mallard’s head is shiny from generations of kids patting it. She remembers the days when her dad — who she has always called Bob — used her and her sister Jane as models for his sketches.
“He followed us around with a sketchbook much as a photographer would follow around his subject or her subject with a camera,” she recalls. “He was always there.”
McCloskey got to know Boston when he was an art student in the city during the 1930s. The story of the ducklings’ perilous journey through the streets of Boston — from the Charles River to the Public Garden — delighted readers.
To celebrate its 75th anniversary, a Boston bookstore, appropriately named Make Way for Ducklings, held a party of its own. Kids got their faces painted, did some duck-themed arts and crafts and gathered in a circle for story time.
Bookstore owner Adam Hirsch says that many of the parents who bring their kids to the store to buy the book grew up reading it themselves. He believes Make Way for Ducklings is a quintessential Boston book with a universal appeal.
McCloskey was at the very outset of his career when he published Make Way for Ducklings in 1941. The book won him his first Caldecott. He went on to write and illustrate Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine and Time of Wonder — for which he won a second Caldecott in 1958.
His daughter remembers him as a man who thought visually. “He was an artist and he thought first in terms of pictures,” she says.
His determined little duck family charmed its way into the hearts of generations of readers in Boston and beyond. After the installation of the Make Way for Ducklings statue, Sal McCloskey went to the Public Garden and watched as a class of kindergarteners “met” the Mallard family.
“I have to say,” she says, “It brought tears to my eyes.”