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Robert McCloskey
    by John Cech

In Boston, they take their ducklings very seriously. On Boston Common, there's a larger than life-sized statue of the famous mother duck and her babies from Robert McCloskey's 1942 award-winning picture book, Make Way for Ducklings. Every spring, parents and children put on yellow, feathery costumes and deck ther prams and strollers in eiderdown for a duckling parade around the Public Gardens. I don't know about any creature venturing on foot or flipper across Storrow Drive from the Charles River to Back Bay, as the duck family does in McCloskey's book, but if any drivers will stop for ducklings, they'll do it here.

Robert McCloskey was born this week in 1914, and, in the past fifty years, he has become not only a kind of spokesman for the spirit of New England, but also a consummate chronicler of the idyllic life of small-town, mid-western America. In fact, his first book for children, Lentil, and two others -- Homer Price and Centerburg Tales -- were based on his boyhood experiences growing up in Hamilton, Ohio, which he converted into the fictional, all-American town of Centerburg, with its quirky, good-natured citizens and its Tom-Sawyer-like hero, Homer Price. Like McCloskey himself was as a boy, Homer is a classic tinkerer, creating, among other things, a remarkably productive doughnut machine. Homer would have grown up to be Doc Brown in Back to the Future, if he hadn't become Robert McCloskey and went east to art school instead.

After his apprenticeship as an artist in Boston and New York during the 1930s, he met and married Margaret Durand, whose mother was the children's book writer, Ruth Sawyer. After serving in the Second World War, he and Margaret eventually retreated, in the early 1950s, to an island off the coast of Maine, where they raised their daughters and he painted and wrote children's books about the region, its inescapable beauties and rock solid people -- quiet, memorable books like Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, A Time of Wonder, and that rollicking, Down Maine, sea shanty fable, Burt Dow, Deep Water Man -- a robust send-up of all tall sea tales.

These are kind, gentle books, from a calm generous nature. "I'm not prolific," McCloskey has said about his work with his characteristic candor. "I have to wait until it bubbles out." But what an eight books he has both written and illustrated in his career. Who needs a geyser when each one is such a pure, steady stream?

Copyright 2005 John Cech

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Thursday, 01-Sep-2005 11:08:51 EDT

"Recess!" is a co-production of the University of Florida's Center for Children's Literature and Culture and WUFT-FM, "Classic 89."