Kids' books: Illustrator Robert McCloskey's charming book "Make Way For Ducklings" marks 70 years of entertaining families. Here's a look at how McCloskey created the illustrations and his other works.

Share story

If you’re one of the many people who marvel at Robert McCloskey’s illustrations in “Make Way For Ducklings,” consider this: He spent two years drawing mallard ducks and ducklings to ensure his artwork was accurate.

McCloskey first spent months researching mallard anatomy at the Museum of Natural History in New York City. Then he decided to purchase two sets of live ducklings so he could draw them up close. McCloskey, who lived in a New York studio apartment in Greenwich Village with another picture-book artist, Marc Simont, spent hours observing and drawing the ducks — armed, as he said, with a box of Kleenex — as they waddled about the apartment.

Simont and McCloskey drew lots to see which bedroom would house the ducklings. Simont lost, and each sunrise the ducklings would waken him with their quacking, according to a wonderful biography written by Gary Schmidt (himself a two-time Newbery Honor winner for achievement in writing children’s books). It is titled, simply, “Robert McCloskey.”

Despite McCloskey’s best efforts, the ducks still moved too fast for him to draw. Anita Silvey, a renowned children’s-book expert who writes the Children’s Book Day Almanac (http://childrensbookalmanac.com/), said that McCloskey eventually came up with an unorthodox solution.

“He gave the ducks some of the red wine they (he and Simont) were having that evening, and the ducks slowed down. This ritual became part of his creative work, and the male mallard even became addicted to the wine, driving the female ducks away so he could get it first,” Silvey says.

McCloskey’s all-out efforts to perfect the illustrations of “Make Way for Ducklings” are a fascinating backstory to the classic picture book, which was published in 1941 and so celebrates its 70th birthday this year.

Generations of children have delighted in the story of how Mr. and Mrs. Mallard first find the perfect place in Boston to start their family, and how — once the ducklings hatch — a friendly policeman helps Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings safely navigate the busy Boston streets to reconnect with Mr. Mallard at the new home he had found for them.

“Make Way For Ducklings” won the 1942 Caldecott Medal, an award given annually by the American Library Association to the best-illustrated book of the year. Interestingly, McCloskey didn’t really have much of a clue about the Caldecott Medal when his editor, the noted May Massee of Viking Books, told him that he had won.

“I had to say, ‘What’s that?’ when May called up and said, ‘You won it!’ I didn’t know from anything what it was,” as Schmidt recounts McCloskey telling another interviewer.

McCloskey never really set out to be a creator of children’s books. Born Sept. 15, 1914, in Hamilton, Ohio, McCloskey first thought that he would be a musician, then an inventor before turning his passion to art.

McCloskey won a scholarship to the Vesper George School of Art in Boston in 1932. He also studied at the National Academy of Design in New York. Initially, McCloskey hoped to be a fine-arts painter, but found after two years that his career was “a bust.” Trying to figure what to do next, McCloskey made an appointment with Massee, who happened to be the aunt of a childhood friend.

Massee, who published such picture-book classics as the “Madeline” books by Ludwig Bemelmans, wasn’t initially impressed by McCloskey’s work, and advised him, as he often said, to “shelve the dragons, Pegasus and limpid pool business.”

Three years after their initial meeting, Massee agreed to publish McCloskey’s first children’s book, “Lentil.” In his biography, Schmidt quotes Massee about how McCloskey responded to the news:

“He said, ‘Miss Massee, you wouldn’t remember, but I was here three years ago with my work and you told me to go home and learn how to draw. And so I did.’ … And he has been our absolutely best person ever since.”

Over the years, McCloskey wrote and illustrated eight books, including, “Time of Wonder,” which won the 1958 Caldecott Medal, “Blueberries for Sal,” which won a 1949 Caldecott Honor (runner-up award to the Caldecott Medal), and the much-loved novel, “Homer Price.” He also illustrated 10 books by other authors, including the Caldecott Honor-winning “Journey Cake, Ho!” written by his mother-in-law, Newbery Medalist Ruth Sawyer, and the four books in the ever-popular “Henry Reed” series by Keith Robertson.

McCloskey’s last picture book, “Burt Dow, Deep Water Man,” was published the same year as Maurice Sendak’s “Where the Wild Things Are,” which won the 1964 Caldecott Medal. As Schmidt notes, Sendak’s book, which showed childhood as a time of “almost uncontrollable frustrations,” couldn’t have been more different from McCloskey’s view that it was a “time of exuberant joy and wonder.”

McCloskey, who died in 2003 at the age of 88, “had the grace to bow out while at the top of his form,” Silvey said, adding that, while McCloskey did work in film animation for several years after that, he never produced another book.

But his classics live on and continue, as Schmidt writes, to celebrate “childhood, family, friendship, the natural world — in short, life itself.”

Karen MacPherson, the children’s/teen librarian at the Takoma Park, Md., Library, can be reached at Kam.Macpherson@gmail.com.