It’s that time of year when baby birds abound, so what better way to celebrate than by reading Make Way for Ducklings, by Robert McCloskey?
What it’s about
Mr and Mrs Mallard are looking for a suitable place to nest but Mrs Mallard doesn’t seem to like anywhere. It either has foxes or turtles and both are dangerous to ducklings. As they fly towards Boston, where the book is set, they spot a lovely island in the middle of the Public Gardens’ lake. Mrs Mallard deems this perfect and, at first, it seems ideal. The island is sheltered, there are no foxes or turtles, and there is a ready supply of peanuts for them to eat from the park’s visitors. However, a near-miss with a bicycle sends Mrs Mallard into a flutter and they continue with their search.
Eventually they find another island, in the middle of the Charles River, and start making their nest. This is just as well as they are starting to molt and won’t be able to fly until their new feathers grow in. They can still swim, of course, and make a daily trip over to the Public Gardens where a friendly policeman, called Michael, gives them peanuts. Soon eight eggs hatch and Mr and Mrs Mallard call their ducklings: Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack. Mr Mallard decides he wants to go off on his own on an adventure, so swims away, promising to meet Mrs Mallard and their brood in a week’s time in the Public Gardens. However, when Mrs Mallard leads her eight ducklings on the journey to the park, it turns out to be more perilous than planned.
Over the past six months I have frequently been visiting a village in Oxfordshire called ‘Ducklington’. My mother recently moved there and everyone who hears the name of the place thinks it sounds delightful. It is. While there is uncertainty over the origins of the name (it might come from “Ducel’s Farm” or “the farm of the sons of Docca) the local opinion is that it comes from the large duck pond at the village centre where lots of ducks and ducklings have lived for centuries. Every time I travel to the weekend, I make sure I go past this pond so I can see the army of ducks, which sometimes are waddling up the cemetery to take a break from the water.
Recently the ducks have been pairing up in readiness for their broods and, last weekend, I was excited to see the result. There were five ducklings on the central pond – tiny creatures that were less than a week old but already proficient in swimming and diving. Apparently there were more at the end of last week but they were either in hiding or something untoward had happened to them. (I hope the former is the case.)
A couple of the Ducklington ducklings!
After this recent experience, I decided to read Make Way for Ducklings to the Year 1 children today (and will carry on tomorrow with Year 2 and Reception). They loved the story of how the Mallards search for their perfect home and how the ducklings must be brave on their journey to meet their father. I involved the children in the tale by asking them to recite the ducklings’ names whenever they were mentioned in the book, and we all did it together, counting on our fingers to make sure we hadn’t left anyone out! The book offered a glimpse, too, of America in the 1930s or 40s (it was first published in 1941) and some geographical details of Boston! The illustrations are full of character – bold lines and delicate shading in the sepia makes it look softer and complements the colour of female duck feathers.
Robert McCloskey won the coveted Caldecott Medal for this joy of a book and it’s easy to understand why. It’s funny, sweet and a gentle exploration of how (some) humans interact with birds. In preparation for writing this piece, I researched Robert McCloskey on the internet and found a fascinating article in the New York Times, published shortly after the author/illustrator’s death in 2003. In this, an illustrator who shared a studio with McCloskey revealed the story behind this classic picture book: ”All of his work has always been very exact,” said Marc Simont, the illustrator who shared a studio with him and with live ducks that Mr. McCloskey bought before writing ”Make Way for Ducklings.’
”He wanted to study them perfectly before he could make a book about them, so he made drawings of them in every position,” Mr. Simont said, adding that the experience remained vivid in his memory. ”Ducks start quacking at the break of day, very loudly and emphatically.”
The article also reveals that sculptor Nancy Schoen created a bronze statue of the ducks that resides in the Public Gardens mentioned in the book – dedicated to McCloskey in 1987. There is also a replica of this piece of artwork in Moscow, presented by former First Lady and literacy champion Barbara Bush to Raisa M Gorbachev in 1991.
Boston sculpture Moscow sculpture
I highly recommend reading this lovely story – it’s picture-book perfection. And if you’re lucky enough to be within distance of either of the sculptures, why not check them out? If you do, please send me a picture!
Read more about Robert McCloskey in this fascinating New York Times article.