One day, while walking to art class in Boston, Robert McCloskey saw a family of ducks waddle from the Public Garden, quacking at the cars honking at them.
He tucked the image in the back of his mind. He was more interested in drawing mythical figures like dragons and ancient Greek heroes than a family of ducks.
It was only after a children’s book editor told him to draw what he knew that he came up with the idea for a story about a family of ducks finding a safe place to live. Make Way for Ducklings still seems as fresh and uplifting today as it did 73 years ago when it was published. The book sold millions of copies and inspired bronze statues in the Public Garden, worn smooth by toddlers sittting dreamy-eyed on Mrs. Mallard, Quack, Jack or any of the ducklings.
He studied some more in New York, then tried to sell watercolors on Cape Cod for two years. But he didn’t sell many paintings .It was the end of the Great Depression, he was broke and he figured his art career was over.
McCloskey then met with a children’s book editor who told him to forget about drawing evil forests and Pegasus and illustrate something he knew.
New Pair of Shoes
He went back to Ohio and drew what he’d grown up with. His book, Lentil, was accepted. It was the biggest moment of his life.
Voom! All of a sudden all of this is in front of me and I’m solvent, you know. I’m making some money and I know where my next meal is coming from, and I have a new pair of shoes and that’s it.
He returned to Boston and caught sight of ducks crossing Beacon Street and causing a traffic problem. Make Way for Ducklings was born.
He was so keen on getting the details right that he studied ducks at the Museum of Natural History, consulted an ornithologist and moved a family of ducks into his art studio in New York’s West Village. For weeks he crawled on the floor, studying them at eye level and drawing how they walked, how they swam, how they held their heads.
The ducklings had names like Tom and Genevive. The editors didn’t like them. So McCloseky gave them more ducklike names: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack.
He was glad the whole thing was over when he finally handed in his drawings to his editor. He considered it adequate.
The book was an instant success.
‘Just A Story’
McCloskey began receiving letters every week from children and adults all over the world with news clippings of ducks crossing a street, he told a radio interviewer. He told the New York Times he was bewildered by the book’s reception:
Some see security. Some see law and order. Well, that’s what policemen did in those days. Some say it’s about the power of families and security. I never thought it was an ode to family. It was just a story. It lives on, even gains momentum with age. I’m amazed.
Make Way for Ducklings won a Caldecott Award, one of two awarded to Robert McCloskey. He would write and illustrate more popular books from his homes in Connecticut and Deer Isle, Maine.
During his lifetime, he made few public appearances. He made a rare appearance before Westchester County’s children’s librarians because his wife Peggy had worked as a children’s librarian there.
In 2000, the Library of Congress named Robert McCloskey a living legend.
He died June 30, 2003.
Image: Ducklings statues By Rizka – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35259407. This story was updated in 2022.