In 1965, my mother went to Hamilton, Ohio to get to know a man who had a crew cut and horn-rimmed glasses. He wasn’t the best speller, but he made the most of his talents for drawing and storytelling.
She met his mother and some of his childhood friends, like Mr. Brisben, who had cut the man’s hair in his barber shop at 112 Main Street. She saw the man’s boyhood home at 120 South G Street, and went to Camp Campbell Gard, where he had not only taught harmonica, art and hobbies, but also carved a totem pole, as a young man. She admired the bas-reliefs of Butler County historical scenes he had made in sandstone on the facade of the Hamilton Municipal Building in 1934, when he was 19. At the Lane Public Library, her new friend, librarian Corrinne Hock, showed her the man’s drawings of Pecos Bill and Johnny Appleseed.
When she returned home, she corresponded with the man’s high school teacher, Dorothy Shirley. And then she wrote to him. He answered with a note and a sketch of his daughters playing Parcheesi. She eventually met him in person.
This mystery man was Robert McCloskey, the award-winning author and illustrator of children’s books who was the subject of one of my mother’s graduate school assignments.
So when we heard that “Make Way for Ducklings: The Art of Robert McCloskey” would be on view at the Cincinnati Art Museum from July 20 to September 9, 2018, off we went to see it.
Organized by The Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Massachusetts, the exhibition consisted of over 100 original McCloskey artworks, ephemera and rare preliminary materials for his eight books, all published by Viking Children’s Books.
McCloskey was a two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal, the American Library Association’s annual award of distinction for children’s book illustration.
“I’m not an authority on children’s literature, or on graphic arts, or on children’s illustration,” McCloskey said in his first Caldecott Medal acceptance speech. “In fact, I’m not a children’s illustrator. I’m just an artist who, among other things, does children’s books….But like a musician who likes to have his music listened to, the architect who likes to build houses that are homes, I like to have my pictures looked at and enjoyed. No effort is too great to find out as much as possible about the things you are drawing. It’s a good feeling to be able to put down a line and know that it is right.”
While the exhibit considered his entire body of work, it featured Make Way for Ducklings, McCloskey’s 1941 picture book about a family of ducks that take up residence in the Boston Public Garden. A maquette of the bronze sculptures of ducklings artist Nancy Schoen made for an installation in the Boston Public Garden were displayed, alongside one of Michael, the policeman pictured in the book who stopped traffic for Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings to cross the road to reach the Public Garden.
After an unsuccessful start as a watercolorist, McCloskey called on a New York City children’s book editor for advice. She told him to lighten up, go home and write about what he knew. He returned to Ohio, found his own stories and characters by drawing and painting what he saw, and produced Lentil, a 1940 tale of a boy and his harmonica. The harmonica that Lane Public Library staff gave to McCloskey during his 1966 visit to Hamilton (when my mother met him) was displayed alongside a photo of him playing the harmonica.
In 1945, McCloskey and his young family moved to Maine, spending half of the year on a chain of islands in Penobscot Bay. The family’s typical Maine experiences — gathering blueberries, digging for clams, playing on the beach, and preparing for a storm — inspired the charming Blueberries for Sal (1948) and One Morning in Maine (1952).
After using a distinctive monochromatic style for his other books, McCloskey employed watercolor washes for the first time in Time of Wonder (1957), effectively capturing the beauty of the natural world. McCloskey won his second Caldecott medal for Time of Wonder.
“It is the end of another summer,” he wrote. “It is time for you to leave the island too….Pack your bag and put in a few treasures – some gull feathers, a few shells, a book of pressed leaves, a piece of quartz that came from a crack in the old rock on the point. Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going. It is a time of quiet wonder….”
Also on view were some of McCloskey’s illustrations for 10 books by other authors, including Journey Cake, Ho!, written by his mother-in-law, Ruth Sawyer, in 1953. Four charming photographs of the McCloskey family in Maine, taken for an unpublished article for Life magazine, were another highlight of the exhibition.
For more on Robert McCloskey, read Robert McCloskey: A Private Life in Words and Pictures, by his daughter, Jane McCloskey, and Robert McCloskey, by Gary D. Schmidt.