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Book Review on Children's Author Robert McCloskey

Updated on July 29, 2014

Blueberries for Sal

Biography

Robert McCloskey was born September 15, 1914 in Hamilton, Ohio. In school, he had many interests and dabbled in instrumental music and inventing and accidentally discovered art when he began to draw ideas for his electrical and mechanical inventions. He fell in love with drawing and was awarded a scholarship at the Vesper George Art School in Boston. After college, he began a career as a professional artist, but although he had some success, he found it wasn’t a lucrative living. As a last resort, he visited a children’s book editor. “He remembers the meeting more in its effect on him than the details: "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." That discussion, and the editor's advice, changed McCloskey's life” (Ohio Reading Road Trip website).

Using his “life experiences and observations” (Blau) of the world around him, McCloskey began to draw. His first book, Lentil, written in 1941 was a book about a boy and his harmonica, and was inspired by his childhood. His observations and paintings of ducks in Boston led him to actually purchase a family of mallards and draw them in various positions, inspiring another book Make Way For Ducklings in1941. His third book, Homer Price, written in 1943, also reflected his childhood as it was a story about a boy inventor. McCloskey fought in World War II and moved with his family, a wife and two daughters, to Maine after the war. “The family's island home and New England lifestyle became the new settings of McCloskey's books, and he painted his daily life into his stories” (Ohio Reading Road Trip website). Blueberries for Sal, written in 1948, and One Morning in Maine, written in 1952, were both books that were inspired by his daughter Sally. Centerburg Tales in 1952 was written as a sequel to Homer Price because of its vast popularity. Time of Wonder was written in 1957 and reflects the experiences of life on the island. Burt Dow, Deep Water Man was his final book in 1963.

Robert McCloskey wrote and illustrated only eight books in his lifetime, and he illustrated ten books for other authors. His work has been recognized and awarded. He won the Caldecott Medal for both of his books Make Way For Ducklings and Time of Wonder. The Caldecott Medal is “the American Library Association's annual award of distinction for children's book illustration” (Blau). In April 2000, he was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress. Readers and critics alike seemed to love his work. “Writing about him in her ''Children's Books and Their Creators'' (Houghton Mifflin), Anita Silvey said, ''Each of his books is a gem, and each accomplishes a different goal, though they are alike in their innocent, homey humor and the best kind of patriotism” (Blau).

On June 30, 2003, Robert McCloskey died in Maine at the age of 88. His works “captivated readers” (Blau) and “are still read by thousands of parents and children; because of him, kids from Ohio can read about blueberry picking in Maine, and children in Maine can pretend they play harmonica for their Ohio town” (Ohio Reading Road Trip).

Detailed Analyses

Three books were read for the analyses of Robert McCloskey’s works. I chose Blueberries for Sal, Make Way for Ducklings, and Time of Wonder. In Blueberries for Sal, a mother takes her young daughter up Blueberry Hill to pick blueberries for canning. Sal picks a few, then eats a few, but ends up eating more than she saves. She and her mother get separated. As this is happening, a parallel story shares that Mother Bear and Little Bear are climbing Blueberry Hill to fill their bellies with blueberries in preparation for winter’s hibernation. Both Little Bear and Sal become separated from their mothers and both of these “children” eat their fill of the fruit. They encounter other animals that are foraging for berries. Sal sees blackbirds and Little Bear sees partridges. Sal ends up following Mother Bear for a while and Little Bear follows Sal’s mother. The mothers turn eventually to find the wrong child behind them, and both mothers back away. The children are eventually found by their correct parent and every creature returns home.

In Make Way for Ducklings, a mother and father duck are searching for a place to raise their ducklings. Mother Duck finds every place unsafe or inappropriate. When they are too tired to fly any longer, they land in a Public Garden in Boston. It is a nice area with water and people who feed them peanuts. However, there is danger in the form of boys on bikes. The parents look elsewhere, but have trouble finding anything else, until they find a little island nearby. They land and build a nest. Every day, they visit the park, where a policeman, Michael feeds them peanuts. Eventually, the Mother Duck lays her eggs and cannot go to the park for peanuts. She stays with the eggs, while the Father Duck goes to the park. Once the 8 eggs hatch, Father Duck says to meet him in a week at the Park. Mother Duck spends the week training her ducklings how to swim, walk in a straight line, and so on. She and her ducklings begin their journey to the park, but encounter a highway where they cannot cross. Their desperate quacks are heard by Michael, the policeman, and he stops the cars, directing traffic, and letting the ducklings cross the street. He also calls 4 other officers to help at the other intersections. People who see the Mother Duck and her 8 ducklings walking in a straight line are astonished by the sight and Mother Duck feels proud that she has trained her ducklings so well. The family ends up at the Public Gardens and meets Father Duck. They thank the policemen who smile and wave goodbye. The Duck Family like the island so much, they decide to live there, and spend their days in the park, eating peanuts.

Time of Wonder is about a family summer spent on the islands of Penobscot Bay, and details the many aspects of the beauty of nature, the animals, the activities, the local color in the people who live there, the scenery, and then the news that a storm is coming. Preparations are made for the storm, stockpiles are stored, and the family hunkers down for the scary hurricane. Father tries to lock the hurricane out of the house and mother tries to read to the children, but the noise of the storm drowns out her voice. The family of four sings loudly to encourage themselves and at moonlight, a rainbow reminds them the storm will end soon. The wind lessens and the family sleeps. The next day, the destruction is seen as a place of wonder- walking on trees where no one has walked, exploring, and finding an Indian artifact, walking where Indian children walked before white men came, and then the chores of working in the garden. Summer ends and everyone packs to leave the island, packing the things they brought with them and their new treasures: feathers, shells, leaves, quartz, etc. There is a sense of bittersweet nostalgia as they sail away from the islands and the last wondering of “where do hummingbirds go in a hurricane?”

The three books were written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey. They share some similarities, but also are distinct in their differences. Their elements of design, narratives, and strengths vary.

Make Way For Ducklings

Make Way for Ducklings

Elements of Design

The artistic media for Ducklings and Sal is pen and ink drawings, while Wonder is watercolors. Both Ducklings and Sal are black and white. Sal uses black at times to show the threat of the crows, the shadow of the rocks, the bears, and white to show lack of threat to the Bears. The partridges, Sal and her Mother, are all seen as white, showing how they are less threatening to the bears than the bears would be to the humans. Although black is used at times to show threat, the bears are still seen as cuddly and sweet. The hills, rocks, crows, and trees are jagged shapes, and the people, partridges, and bears are soft and rounded. The texture uses cross hatching, blends of black and white to show space, distance, and perspective. Distances are darker, almost in shadows, and smudged, not in detail as the objects which we are to focus on. Ducklings incorporates thin and curvy lines to show the journey of the ducks. The lighting has shadows where there should be shadows and the shape shows spacious areas and a lot of details as there are many things going on- cars, water, ducks, people, stores, a town setting. There is more detail on the primary characters and the background scenery and characters are smudgy and lack detail. The background buildings have less bold lines. The texture is a mixture of clarity and thick smudges. Time of Wonder was in color, beautiful color! The lines were thin and bold to show different ideas. The color was muted and sunset/sunrise colors to show the idyllic summer, the beautiful scenery, and the darker and jewel toned scenes of the storm. The line was distorted with streaks across the page to show the wind blowing through the storm. The light was bright for summer and daylight, but darker for the storm. The shapes were muted, basic; the idea was shared through the shape, but not forced on the reader. The texture involved shading, color upon color, curves showing waves, streaks to show storm. Each page was like looking at a beautiful piece of impressionistic art. The backgrounds were these broad, sweeping landscapes and seascapes with more details being on the focal point of the overall picture than on one idea.

The layout in Sal and Ducklings uses a mixture of single and double page spreads. There are no borders and the page turns in Sal offer minimal suspense. The age level specified on the book is for age 3 and up, so I am guessing that the book cannot be too scary or suspenseful, less it lead to nightmares. Ducklings creates a little more suspense as the reader wonders if the ducks and ducklings will meet disaster. The last page is very much a conclusion as both the Bear duo and human duo walk down opposite sides of Blueberry Hill to return home. Ducklings’ last page is the darkest in shading and lighting to show that it is night as the ducks settle on their island to sleep. The perspective of Sal, Ducklings and Wonder is a variety of close up and distance views and the backgrounds are a variety of blueberry fields, forest, rocks, and broad landscapes, the parks, the journey, the state capital, seascapes. The layout for Wonder is almost consistently with text on the left and the picture on the right and edging onto the left page. The borders are the same size except in the instance of the first summer rain and the hurricane. There is one page where the hurricane takes over the entire page and no text is present. Page turns create more anticipation of what is next rather than suspense, except for one area where a sentence doesn’t end. The last page is the sunset of the story, the family is leaving and the island is seen at a distance.

The characterization of Sal has minimal facial expression. Although critics acclaim the art work in this book, I felt that the emotion was very blithe and content. Both children are exceedingly innocent, sans mischief and the only chance of expression is the surprise on both of the mother’s faces when they see the wrong “child” behind them. Otherwise, the characters did not reach out and grab the viewer. Ducklings’ characters were different than Sal’s. Although there was not a lot of “facial” expression, in every picture, each of the eight ducklings was drawn in a different pose showing their different “duckalities” (or personalities). The policeman is shown as affable and concerned and the other people have minimal facial expression. The characters in Wonder have smudged faces, but there is a variety of facial expression implied, actions, and gestures that come through the artwork.

The Visual and Verbal dynamics of all three books is symmetrical. The words and pictures all tell the same story. Moving on to narrative, let us compare and contrast the three books.

Narrative

Each of the books uses the elements of narration in similar and dissimilar ways. In Blueberries for Sal, the plot is linear. Sal and her mother go to pick blueberries. The inciting incident is when Sal first eats a blueberry and realizes that eating them is tastier than saving them in her pail. The rising action would be her constant stops and starts and her eventual separation from her mother. These events are parallel to the bear’s. The climax is both mothers realize their child is gone. The falling action is the mothers finding the children and the resolution to the conflict is that the children are found and everyone goes home, having completed their mission to gather blueberries for winter, whether by canning for future consumption or fattening up now for hibernation. Make Way for Ducklings’ plot is also linear. The exposition begins with the mother and father duck looking for a place to live. The inciting incident is their fatigue causing them to land in the public gardens. The conflict is the question if they have settled in a safe place to live. The rising action is settling on the island, mother duck lays and hatches her eggs and trains her ducklings. The climax is a bit muddy and could be seen as the mother and ducklings’ journey to the public gardens, fraught with traffic. Essentially, the act of them being unable to cross the first road could be considered a climax. The cops helping direct traffic and getting the family back to their father is the falling action and the resolution is the ducks settling in the park and the conflict is resolved, for now. However, each day, as the ducks travel off their island to the park must most certainly be marked with peril and danger as they traverse the city streets. The plot is also linear for Time of Wonder. The exposition describes the idea of summer on an island and the rising action encompasses all the wonder of nature and scenery and such. The conflict is the upcoming hurricane. The climax is the hurricane when it is at its loudest and the family has to sing to drown out the noise. The falling action is the quiet after the storm, the family, exploring after the storm and finding a land of new discoveries and new wonder, and then their preparations to go home. The resolution is the idea that there is still wonder in the world even after the storm. This story resolves with a completion of a pattern, there is wonder before and after a storm.

The narrative voice of Blueberries for Sal is third person omniscient with a somewhat minimal description of what the characters are thinking. The voice, to me, seems neutral. I picture a non-judgmental storyteller sharing this with no humor, criticism, or lecture. It is simply a warm, but dispassionate book about a parent and child. The narrative voice of Make Way for Ducklings is also third person, omniscient with a neutral, but sympathetic attitude. Once again, it feels like the voice of a storyteller. I think the pictures in Ducklings convey more so the tone of voice than does the actual text. Time of Wonder does something different. It begins in a second person format, where “you” are the reader and you are experiencing it. The attitude is a sense of wonder, the world is a wonderful place, and even though the world is scary at times, there is joy in singing, joy in discovering, and joy in exploring. It eventually switches to more of a third person delivery, but at that point, the reader is so engrossed, that he or she is still within the pages of the book.

The setting of these three books has the greatest variety. We see the hills and nature of Maine, the bustling traffic and green parks of Boston, and the sun-soaked seascapes of New England shores. The setting of Blueberries for Sal is Blueberry Hill (in Maine) in the 1940s or 50s, during daylight hours and encompasses several hours. For mothers, Blueberry Hill is a place to find food to provide sustenance for their children in the upcoming winter when food is scarce. It is only a scary place if children become lost. For the children, it is a place of interest, possible adventure, and abundant goodies to munch on. The child characters never seem uncomfortable. The children are fairly sanguine in their approach to the adventure. They eat and follow the other species, without discomfort or worry. Make Way for Ducklings is set in Boston, the 1940s, and take place over the period of time it takes to lay eggs, the week to train the ducklings, the daylight journey to the park and the evening to settle down for sleep at the final page. Time of Wonder is set on the islands in New England, during the entire summer. The setting is seen as a wonder-inspiring place.

Each of these books shares a common theme of parents providing for and protecting their young. In Blueberries for Sal, Sal’s mother and Little Bear’s mother are concerned with preparing for the winter and caring for her child. A mini-lesson of not tangling with bears could be inferred in the way that Sal’s mother chose to back away from Little Bear instead of engaging him. Make Way for Ducklings shares this theme, but also has an additional theme that “outsiders” can be helpful. Time of Wonder presents the theme of the world being full of wonder, but prevalent too, is the idea of the girls’ parents protecting them during the storm, and essentially providing them with the mentality after the storm, that the world is still a beautiful, wonderful place.

The characters of Blueberries for Sal are Sal, her mother, Little Bear, and Mother Bear. Sal is a young child, innocent with a limited background. From the pictures, she appears to be maybe 3-5 years old. She is greedy for more blueberries. Little Bear is her animal counterpart. He is also innocent and young with minimal life experience. He obeys his mother by eating as many blueberries as possible, whereas Sal disobeys by eating the berries rather than collecting them in her pail. Sal’s mother is a motherly mother with a 1950s housewife mentality, taking her daughter for a day of picking and canning blueberries. It is the 1950s, so she is most likely a stay at home mom. She is somewhat non-supervisory, not watching her child, so Sal gets lost. However, that being said, she also has the wisdom to know not to interact with Little Bear. Her animal counterpart, in mother Bear, shares the same characteristics and is wise, also, to not interact with the human child. The crows and partridges are lesser characters and are a smaller scale model of the parent/child dynamic of gathering food for the winter to provide for their young. They are all likeable characters. The artist renders them as innocent, blithe, not very descriptive or dramatic. The Bears are important as a foil to the mother and daughter dynamic.

Make Way for Ducklings also has a cast of characters composed of animals and humans. Mother duck is a choosy mom who wants the best for her children. She wants them safe and provided for. Father duck is ready to settle, perhaps a bit impatient, but indulgent, with mother duck’s choosiness. He does not say much about it, but could be considered an absentee father as he deserts his kids for the park, although, they are reunited. I suppose given the time period, his “desertion” could be considered a father away at work or war. The baby ducks, all eight of them, have no dialogue beyond “Quack”; however, they have names and in every picture, they are taking a different action, showing individuality. The policeman Michael is an affable, friendly, helpful guy who likes ducks. He is drawn as pudgy, giving him a Santa Claus presence. Cars, bikes, and children are characters of danger, whereas the policemen and ducks are central and basically good.

Time of Wonder veers away from what has been experienced in Sal and Ducklings. The characters at the beginning are “you” the reader, yet eventually evolved to the two daughters and their parents, although no information is given as to who they are. The pictures tell us there are a mom, dad, and two daughters. The reader does not know their names. Even without information, we are led to understand that they probably have backgrounds involving money as they can afford to summer in an island home and that these parents have instilled a sense of awe in their children’s perspectives. The parents are obviously concerned for their children in keeping the house safe and the children entertained during the storm. Supporting characters are the locals and the other children playing in the water. In this book, although animals are mentioned, they are not personified as they were in the other two. These characters were extremely likeable, easy to connect to and identify with.

Time of Wonder

Strengths

Blueberries for Sal is a great book to read aloud. Using words such as “kerplunk” are an invitation for the reader to put the words into speech, making the onomatopoeia sounds a reality. This book was one of the favorites as a child. As a teacher, it could be used in class and put into actions as a short play for youngsters to get involved in. It would be a stretch to use if for science or social studies or even art. The art is pretty basic and not very interesting from an adult viewer’s standpoint. I, personally, did not like the lack of color. I like the story of this book, but it is not exactly realistic. One would think the mother bear would eat Sal or that Little Bear would eat the partridges. It is definitely reflective of a simpler time and a simpler point of view; however, eating the main character might be a bit offensive for young audiences and their parents. This story could easily be transposed into play format and would be an excellent play for a first grade class to do on stage.

I think, perhaps, of the three books that Make Way for Ducklings was my least favorite. I had to step outside of myself and my preferences to attempt to experience it as a parent or child and get beyond my dislike with personification of animal characters. I believe it would be a good book to read aloud, but could not at all be used in science or social studies. It is not an accurate portrayal of ducks or human nature. The artwork is minimal and not super interesting, so it is not a great example to aspiring artists. This book could not be put into play format easily or performed on stage very well because of its variety of settings such as air, highways, water, parks, gardens, the state house, etc. It would make for horrid scene changes! The ducks are personified and interact with the humans without fear, which is completely unrealistic. It is definitely a story from a simpler time period, but it is a sweet story. There is a little more characterization and character information than was found in Blueberries for Sal.

Time of Wonder was my favorite of the three books. The pictures were in color and although muted, they displayed the beautiful landscapes and seascapes of island life. I liked the idyllic, yet realistic, view of summer on the island. This is an excellent book to read aloud and the second person view causes the listener to close his eyes and imagine that he is on the island as well. He is seeing the sights, hearing the sounds, experiencing the island vacation. This story could not be used too easily for reader’s theatre or dramatic presentation. In a science class, Time of Wonder could be used to illustrate how the world and all its components are places of discovery. If I taught science and used this book, it would be a beginning of the year lesson plan where I would encourage the students to view each day as a way to discover something new about science, making each day, each lesson, each experiment a thing of wonder and amazement. The story does share the realism that hurricanes are scary and dangerous, but also the hope of parents as protection. The main focal point, though, of this book is the idea of viewing the world as a wonder-inspiring place. I liked the positive, upbeat, uplifting aspect of this book. It was realistic, but idyllic. It was hopeful and connected to my own childhood of summers on Edisto Island in South Carolina. Every child should experience such a summer!

Regardless of each book’s similarities or differences in its elements of design, narratives, and strengths, each book serves a purpose and tells a wonderful story to young audiences and their parents alike of the dynamic of parents and children, of parents providing and protecting their children, and of parents instilling something of the future into their children. Blueberries for Sal, Sal’s and Little Bear’s mothers teach them the importance of storing up for winter. The ducklings’ parents in Make Way for Ducklings teach the children the basic life skills of swimming and gathering food. And the parents in Time of Wonder teach their children that each day is filled with something inspirational and even the most mundane item can be filled with adventure or awe. Each book merits a second and third read and should be passed along to other young readers, adding to their own library. I will have to agree with the critics on the timelessness of Robert McCloskey’s books.

Which of these books would you most likely read?

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Bibliography

About.com, a New York Times Company. Kennedy, Elizabeth. “Maine Caldecott Winners by Robert McCloskey.” New York, 2010, Web Version

Blau, Eleanor. “Robert McCloskey, 88, of ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ Is Dead.” New York Times 1 July 2003, Web Version

Dictionary of Library Biography, Volume 22: American Writers for Children, 1900-1960, Florida, Gale Research, 1983, pp. 259-266

Major Authors and Illustration for Children and Young Adults, Michigan, Gale Group, 2003

McCloskey, Robert Blueberries for Sal, New York, Viking, 1948, Print

McCloskey, Robert Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, New York, Viking 1963, Print

McCloskey, Robert Centerburg Tales, New York, Viking, 1951, Print

McCloskey, Robert Homer Price, New York, Viking 1943, Print

McCloskey, Robert Lentil, New York, Viking 1941, Print

McCloskey, Robert Make Way for Ducklings, New York, Viking 1941, Print

McCloskey, Robert One Morning in Maine, New York, Viking, 1952, Print

McCloskey, Robert Time of Wonder, New York, Viking, 1957, Print

ORRT.Org. 2004. Greater Dayton Public Television. Web. September 3, 2010

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