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Make Way for Ducklings


Dear Bird Folks,

When I was small my favorite book was Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey. On Easter morning I read it to my own kids. When I finished, my son asked if the story was true, to which I said, “Yes.” But the truth is, I have no idea if the events in the book ever really took place or if it’s just a cute story. Do you know?

– Jen, Brewster, MA


IDK, Jen,

I think Make Way for Ducklings is one of everybody’s favorite books. How could anyone not like a story about ducks? However, like you, I don’t know much about the story behind the story. So, I turned to my wife, the retired elementary school teacher, for help. If anyone knows, she will. Nope. She knew less than me. But she did know that the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is having a special exhibit on Robert McCloskey as we speak. She suggested that we (she and me, not you and I, Jen, sorry) go check it out. I didn’t like that idea. Who wants to spend a day looking at painted bowls of fruit or fuzzy images created by dead French artists? But I could tell by the look on her face that she wasn’t changing her mind, so we got in the car and headed to Beantown. It’s just easier that way.

I first have to apologize to the Museum of Fine Arts. There’s way more to see than fuzzy images of dead French fruit. In addition to world-class art, there were displays of ancient artifacts and relics from all over the world. We were there for nearly two hours before we remembered what we had come to see. Eventually, though, we made our way to the McCloskey exhibit. By MFA standards, this showing was fairly small but interesting nonetheless. It included quite a few images from McCloskey’s other books, including my wife’s favorite, Blueberries for Sal (which I always thought was “Blueberries for Sale.” Once a retailer, always a retailer.) Then I found what we all were looking for…the origin of Make Way for Ducklings.

Robert McCloskey, who is not from Boston, grew up in far away Ohio. But he attended art school in Boston. Like most wild and crazy college kids, Robert spent time in the park, enjoying the ducks. (Okay, maybe only Robert and I enjoy doing something like that.) After art school, he bounced around between New York, Ohio and Italy. He even spent two years with us here on Cape Cod, but never had much success selling his artwork. It eventually became evident that McCloskey had more skills as an illustrator than as an insightful artist. After a meeting with famed editor, May Massee, he decided to channel his talents into writing and illustrating children’s books. That turned out to be a good move.

His first book was entitled, Lentil. The book was popular, but sadly, Lentil was not, as I had hoped, about a young vegetarian. For his second book, Robert called upon his memories of seeing ducks in the Boston Public Gardens and the area’s growing traffic problems. (Traffic congestion is Boston? Never.) When Robert shared his idea with May Massee, she told him that he needed to improve his duck drawing skills. So, he brought live ducklings into his NYC studio and studied them at length. Massee now liked what she saw, but she had a surprise for McCloskey. He had to draw his duck images on printing plates and he had to draw them backwards. That sounds difficult, but I think I could do it. I mean, just about anything I draw looks backwards to most people anyhow.

For anyone who doesn’t know the story, here is a brief CliffsNotes version of Make Way for Ducklings. Mr. and Mrs. Mallard hatched a family of eight ducklings (Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack) on a small island in the Charles River. Apparently, mama didn’t dig the “dirty water” in the Charles, so she led her brood down Charles Street, across Newbury Street. and into the Boston Public Gardens. It was on this cross-city journey that the little ducks received help from police officer Michael (swell name). Did this event really happen? No, and yes. Make Way for Ducklings is not an eyewitness account of an actual incident. However, I think we’ve all seen duck families crossing busy roads and it was these annual events that Make Way for Ducklings was based on.

After studying the illustrations at the MFA, I was impressed with how accurate and charming McCloskey was able to make his main characters (the ducks). My only complaint is with the human character, Michael. He is portrayed as a kind, but portly police officer. When has anyone ever seen an overweight cop in Boston? Never, right? (Hopefully, that will save me from getting a parking ticket the next time I’m in the city.) We next headed over to the Boston Public Gardens to see the famous bronze statues of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings. I tried to take a selfie with the ducks, but there were too many kids playing on them. Darn kids! (Just kidding.)

You should take your children to see the exhibit, Jen. It’s at the MFA until June 18th. After the museum, head over to the Public Gardens and see the brass ducklings in person. And if you go on Mother’s Day, you could participate in Boston’s annual Duckling Day Parade, where everyone marches through the park dressed like ducks. One word of caution: don’t put your duck suit on until you get off the subway. I won’t make that mistake…again.