When Robert McCloskey decided to focus his second picture book on a duck family's effort to find a home, he realized that he needed to know more about how to draw a duck.
&tab;So McCloskey, who was living in a New York City apartment with another artist, went out and bought four mallard chicks at a market and brought them home, where he used them as the models for "Make Ways for Ducklings.''
&tab;"I spent the next weeks on my hands and knees, armed with a box of Kleenex and a sketch book, following the ducks around the studio and observing them in the bathtub,'' McCloskey said in his speech accepting the 1942 Caldecott award for "Make Way for Ducklings.''
“All this sounds like a three-ring circus,'' said McCloskey, who eventually ended up owning 16 ducks. “But it shows that 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.'”
McCloskey, who died June 30 at the age of 88, was known as someone who was almost always able to “put down a line and know that it is right.” His illustrations, often consisting of black-and-white drawings, are instantly recognizable for the unique way that McCloskey combined realism, emotion, and humor.
McCloskey also created a number of beloved characters, including small-town hero Homer Price, Michael - the Boston policeman who helps the ducklings safely across traffic - and two small girls, Sal and Jane, based on McCloskey's lively daughters.
McCloskey, a shy, modest man, decided to formally retire from children's books in 1970. By then, however, he had become one of the best-known - and best-loved - of all American picture book creators.
Although McCloskey wrote and illustrated only eight books, two of those books won Caldecott Medals. The medal, often called the “Academy Award” of children's books, are given each year by the American Library Association for the best-illustrated picture book. McCloskey, who received a second Caldecott in 1958 for Time of Wonder, was the first illustrator to win two Caldecott Medals.
He also did the illustrations for another 10 books, including the Henry Reed series by Keith Robertson and Journey Cake Ho! by Newbery Medal-winning author Ruth Sawyer, mother of McCloskey's wife, Margaret Durand.
But it was McCloskey's picture books, particularly Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal, that won him wide critical and popular acclaim. Other popular McCloskey books include his first picture book, the autobiographical Lentil, as well as the chapter books Homer Price and its sequel Centerburg Tales.
Several generations of children and adults have delighted in McCloskey's homespun tales of small-town America. But McCloskey's illustrations are perhaps his most indelible legacy.
Who can forget the scene that McCloskey drew to show Mrs. Mallard quacking at the cars trying to run over her ducklings in Make Way for Ducklings? Or the scene in Homer Price when the automatic doughnut machine runs wild and fills Uncle Ulysses' coffee shop with stacks and stacks of doughnuts? Or the moment in Blueberries for Sal when Sal first encounters Little Bear's mother on a Maine hillside?
Although McCloskey became famous for his ability to capture the emotion and humor in everyday life, he was trained as a classical artist at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston and then at the National Academy of Design in New York in the 1930s.
After finishing his art studies, McCloskey, who grew up in Hamilton, Ohio, then tried to make a living as a watercolorist, but failed. He also tried working as a commercial artist, but didn't enjoy it. Then one day, he decided to call on the mother of a friend who published children's books in New York.
As Leonard Marcus notes in his book, A Caldecott Celebration, McCloskey met with Viking Press editor May Massee, who was “among the most gifted editors of her day. In that first meeting, she had recognized a young visitor's talent and sent him away with good advice: to draw the things he knew firsthand instead of the stuffy mythological scenes that he thought a `serious' artist was supposed to draw.”
In an interview published in The Scoop, McCloskey recalled that first meeting with Massee: “She looked at the examples of `great art' that I had brought along (they were woodcuts, fraught with black drama). I don't remember just the words she used to tell me to get wise to myself and to shelve the dragons, Pegasus, and limpid pool business and learn how and what to `art' with. I think we talked mostly of Ohio.”
Three years later, in 1941, Viking published McCloskey's first book. Titled Lentil, it was loosely based on McCloskey's own childhood, a childhood filled with music (he played the harmonica, oboe, and drums), machines (McCloskey, like his father, loved to invent things), and painting.
McCloskey told children's book expert Anita Silvey years later that getting that first book published was even more exciting than winning the Caldecott Medal for two subsequent picture books.
“It was an exciting time because it was as though I was sort of tied up in a paper bag or in a gunny sack with a rope around the neck of it, and all of a sudden everything sort of spilled out!
“Because it's hard to realize now that that was the end of the Great Depression. ... 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.”