Three-quarters of a century have passed since Mr. and Mrs. Mallard found a safe spot on an island in Boston’s Charles River to build a nest and prepare for the hatching of their eight ducklings, Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack. The story of Mrs. Mallard’s daily waddlings to the Boston Public Garden, followed by her brood, and the police officers who stopped traffic to allow them safe passage, was written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey (1914–1983), who published Make Way for Ducklings with Viking in 1941. On March 29, the publisher will release a 75th-anniversary edition of the classic, which includes a CD-audio recording of the book read by Brian Hatch, and a fold-out poster map featuring Boston landmarks – and of course the ducklings – created by Paul O. Zelinsky.
Illustrated with sepia drawings rather than the traditional black-and-white pictures found in most children’s books of the day, McCloskey’s picture book earned him the 1942 Caldecott Medal. There are five million copies of Viking’s edition of the book in print, and in 2003 Make Way for Ducklings was designated the official book of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts. The Mallards are immortalized by bronze sculptures of the ducklings – in formation behind their mother – created by Nancy Schön and located in the Boston Public Garden. A popular attraction for locals and visitors alike, the bronze reproductions of the ducks are rubbed and patted so frequently that they need no polishing.
McCloskey (who was the first artist to receive two Caldecotts, the second in 1958 for Time of Wonder) was inspired to write Make Way for Ducklings as a student at Boston’s Vesper George Art School in the early 1930s. Crossing the Public Garden daily on his way to class, he was intrigued by the resident ducks, and when he returned to Boston several years after finishing his schooling there (to work on a mural created by Francis Scott Bradford, featuring famous Beacon Hill residents), McCloskey witnessed the traffic problems caused by the ducks and, as he said in an interview, “the book just sort of developed from there.”
Back in his Manhattan apartment, McCloskey purchased four mallards, which he observed and sketched swimming in his bathtub and waddling through his studio, to make sure he captured their movements accurately in the book. Zelinsky – who was awarded his own Caldecott in 1989 for his illustrated retelling of Rapunzel, plus three Caldecott Honors – became all the more appreciative of McCloskey’s close attention to visual detail when he visited Boston to research the Mallards’ home turf to create the pictorial map.
“From what I saw in Boston, I realized that he was a master of streamlining images, and that he got every detail just right, though I think he enlarged and moved the ducks’ island in the Charles River, for dramatic effect,” observed Zelinsky. “I’d been questioning why McCloskey had pictured the ducks moving from right to left on the page as they walked through Beacon Hill, which is an odd thing in a picture book. Walking the streets, I realized that if the action in the drawings were to move from left to right, the ducks could not have been shown passing the Corner Book Shop, which is a wonderful detail in the story. McCloskey had lived on Otis Place, just yards from the spot where Officer Michael stopped traffic for the ducklings. He clearly knew these streets very well.”
Tributes to a Classic
Regina Hayes, now editor-at-large at Viking Children's Books, who arrived at the company in 1982, met McCloskey on several occasions when he visited New York from his Maine island home. “I was so taken by him immediately,” she recalled. “Bob was so shy, but had such a wonderful sense of humor. He came down for a bookstore signing, and the turnout was incredible. I remember he was quite overwhelmed by all the people, and their love for Make Way for Ducklings – everyone wanted to tell him what the book meant to them.”
Musing on the widespread and ongoing appeal of McCloskey’s classic, Hayes said, “I think that its story of finding a home has a lot to do with it, since that is so reassuring. And the story is so simply told – it is unadorned and pared down to the essentials. It is a beautiful book, created by a kind, lovely man, and I certainly feel lucky to have worked with him.”
V-p and publisher Ken Wright noted that Make Way for Ducklings is “one of the pillars of this house, and among those very special classics – like the Madeline, Corduroy, and the Ezra Jack Keats books – that we cherish and take very good care of, so they will always be there for the next generation.” The key to the timelessness and universality of McCloskey’s book, he said, “is that it so beautifully observed, and the pictures are so perfectly composed. When you read this book you get carried away into Bob’s world and the world of these little ducklings. And I think it’s meaningful that it’s geared toward readers who are at an age when they, too, are trying to find their way in the world, beyond the backyard.”
Commemorations of Make Way for Ducklings’s anniversary edition include story times with activities at The World’s Only Curious George Store in Cambridge, Mass., on April 1 and at Make Way for Ducklings Bookstore in Boston on April 2. For booksellers and educators eager to stage their own anniversary celebrations, the publisher has created downloadable activities.
Fans can also honor the classic on Boston’s annual Duckling Day, held this year on May 8, Mother’s Day, when McCloskey’s daughter, Sal McCloskey (who inspired Blueberries for Sal), will lead the parade recreating the Mallard family’s journey. In another tribute, the Eric Carle Museum in Amherst, Mass., will display more than 90 original artworks in an exhibition, “Americana on Parade: The Life of Robert McCloskey,” from June 19 through October 23.
Make Way for Ducklings: 75th Anniversary Edition by Robert McCloskey. Viking, $24.99 Apr. ISBN 978-1-101-99795-6
This article has been edited since its original publication.