Highlights of life
For a man who set out to make his living as an artist, Robert J. McCloskey surprised himself and delighted generations of readers with classic children’s books such as Make Way for Ducklings and Lentil.
Born in Hamilton, Ohio in 1914, McCloskey was encouraged by his parents to explore his interests. “I took piano lessons from the time my fingers were long enough to play the scale,” he was once quoted. McCloskey also played the harmonica, drums and oboe. He tinkered with the mechanics of old electric motors, clocks, and even built trains and cranes with remote control. “The inventor’s life was the life for me, that is, until I started making drawings for the school paper,” he said in an early interview. The Hamilton High School graduate won a scholarship to the Vesper George Art School in Boston, which closed in 1984.
While living in Boston, McCloskey often fed the ducks while walking through the city’s Public Gardens on the way to art school; but the young idealist’s mind was full of Greek mythology, Oriental dragons and the classic building blocks of art education. McCloskey’s urban encounters with mallard ducks, much like other early experiences, would come to life again when he became a children’s book author.
In 1936 McCloskey moved to New York City to study at the National Academy of Design. Like many gifted artists, McCloskey could not support himself from the sales of his paintings. After working briefly in commercial art, McCloskey returned to Ohio in 1938. With his pencil and sketchpad, he set out to capture the beauty and interest of small-town life in the Midwest. He returned to the East and, on the strength of his portfolio, was hired to paint murals in Boston’s upscale Beacon Hill.
Spending hours at a time on scaffolding as he painted large-scale portraits of famous people, McCloskey again noticed ducks from the neighboring Public Gardens as they tied up noisy traffic to cross busy streets. The young painter would later tap into these memories in his second book.
The fictional Alto, Ohio was the setting for McCloskey’s first book, Lentil, published in 1939. A favorite among children of all ages, Lentil tells the adventure of a young boy who, saddened that he couldn’t sing, learns to play the harmonica. When asked about the unusual name assigned to his character, McCloskey told the former Columbus Citizen that Lentil was only a nickname to hold the place until he had the chance to choose a better name for him. “Everybody liked the nickname, so I let it stand.”
In 1940 McCloskey married Margaret Durand, a children’s librarian and daughter of Newberry Award-winning author, Ruth Sawyer. They would have two daughters, Sarah and Jane.
His second and perhaps best-known book, Make Way for Ducklings, won the prestigious Caldecott Medal in 1942. In the story, a mother duck searches the streets of Boston for a safe place to raise her young. McCloskey began the book by recalling the hilarious scenes of ducks crossing grid-locked Boston streets. To illustrate the detailed movements of his characters with authenticity, McCloskey bought a half dozen southern mallards at a city market from a poultry dealer. He spent the next few weeks crawling around his studio, sketching the ducks and cleaning up their droppings. McCloskey put them in a bathtub to sketch their swimming movements. And when they waddled too fast for him to draw, McCloskey fed the ducks red wine to slow them down. Evident from the richly detailed charcoal illustrations, McCloskey returned to Boson to sketch the book’s background alive with parks, bridges, fences, streets, people and cars.
Between 1942 and 1945 McCloskey served in the U.S. Army. A technical sergeant based at Fort McClellan, Alabama, McCloskey’s artistic talents were put to use drawing training pictures. In 1943 he published Homer Price, an American classic that chronicles the life and adventures of its hero. The fictional picture book is thought by many to be reminiscent of McCloskey’s small town upbringing. He continued the escapades of Homer Price in Centerburg Tales, published by Viking in 1951.
After the war, the McCloskeys moved to an island off the north coast of Maine. It is said that the author delivered manuscripts to his publisher by rowing a boat to the mainland and its small, rural post office.
Forthcoming books reflect McCloskey’s love of the ocean and for his daughters. Blueberries for Sal, published in 1948, was named for his older daughter, Sarah. Children delight in this tale of mother and daughter on a berry-picking walk in the Maine woods. Elsewhere in the woods, a mother bear and her cub are out walking. The action escalates when mothers and babies get mixed up in a humorous moment that ends harmlessly.
McCloskey’s younger daughter, Jane, appears in One Morning in Maine, a cozy family story with a life lesson told in an affectionate way. Acclaimed for its pictures, the story features Jane losing a baby tooth, and learning that it’s a sign of growing up.
With the publication of Time of Wonder in 1957, McCloskey became the first author to ever win two Caldecott Medals. In his first full-color book, the author changed direction from his traditional pragmatic style to write a prose poem. Again he succeeds in communicating an important lesson without being preachy. Watercolor illustrations show the beauty of the author’s cherished Maine islands, with their changing seasons and tides. Even with bad weather approaching, the story assures children that family will always protect them.
McCloskey published his final book in 1963. In keeping with the author’s style, Burt Dow: Deep Water Man connected with children by portraying an ordinary but humorous character engaged in familiar facets of life. A retired fisherman living on a New England shore, Burt Dow’s routine is divided between his two old leaky boats. One he uses for travel to odd jobs; the other boat, no longer suited for maritime purposes, now contains flowers in his front yard. He uses leftover paint from his odd jobs to spruce up his boat-shaped lawn decoration.
Considered one of the best children’s book illustrators of his time, Robert McCloskey has entertained generations of readers with his signature style that blends adventure, mischief and humor.
He was said to be modest about his skills as a writer. “It’s just sort of an accident that I write books,” he used to say. “I really think up stories in pictures and just fill in between pictures with words.”
In his public remarks McCloskey advocated art education in public schools. He criticized the labeling of art as an unessential subject and worried that technology was squeezing out an appreciation for nature.
Following a long illness, Robert McCloskey died on June 30, 2003 in Deer Isle, Maine. He was 88.