Surely the most famous of Robert McCloskey’s picture books is Caldecott Medal winner Make Way for Ducklings. Set in Boston, Massachusetts (where the story has earned iconic stature), Mr. and Mrs. Mallard’s search for a suitable home for their eight ducklings has entertained young readers since its publication in 1941.
Mr. McCloskey’s next four picture books are set further up the New England coast, in Maine. Blueberry Hill is the scene of the 1948 Caldecott Honor book, Blueberries for Sal. Little Sal finds blueberry picking delicious to the point of distraction. She is soon separated from her mother. On the same hill, Little Bear looses track of his mother in a similar way. Little Bear and Little Sal are soon mixed up with each other’s parent among the blueberries. How they get that way and how each mother and child pair is reunited is a delightful adventure for young readers.
Blueberries for Sal is as enjoyable to read aloud as it is for young ones to hear: “kuplink, kuplank, kaplunk,” sound the berries as they hit the bottom of Little Sal’s pail. As with most of McCloskey’s books, the rhythm of the language appeals and engages young children. The illustrations are great fun, too. The reader’s reactions will match the character’s facial expressions as he or she follows the adventures of Little Sal and Little Bear on Blueberry Hill.
When Little Sal is old enough to lose her first tooth, she reappears in One Morning in Maine, another Caldecott Honor book. She awakes one Saturday morning knowing that on this day she will boat to the mainland with her father to run the family’s errands. The story is simple and comfortable. Sal greets the island animals as she heads to the shore to find her father and help with his clam digging. She revels in her father’s company and is proud to be a “big girl” visiting the local merchants, boasting of her lost tooth and caring for her younger sister Jane.
The glimpse of Maine wildlife that the reader gets in the Sal stories is expanded into a full-fledge nature study in Time of Wonder, McCloskey’s final Caldecott winner. Two unnamed sisters (I like to think they are Sal and Jane) are the narrators of this Maine tale that takes the reader on an exploration of their vacation island. From early spring through summer, we follow the girls as they experience shore and forest, night and day, fog and sun, and finally, hurricane! A sense of beauty and appreciation is communicated through the poetic prose that accompanies page after page of vibrant watercolor.
Burt Dow, Deep Water Man, is the last of McCloskey’s picture books set in Maine. Its appeal is less universal. Its main character is a caricature of an old Maine fisherman who hooks a whale in the tail and must tend to the wound. The book has comic moments and dramatic illustrations, but the plot is a little silly and not as satisfying as McCloskey’s other books.
No review of Robert McCloskey’s work would be complete without mention of Lentil. The story is set in Alto, Ohio, a small town like the one McCloskey in which grew up. Young Lentil loves music but cannot sing so he buys a harmonica and teaches himself to play. He practices perseveringly, thinks on his feet and saves the day when the town grump tries to ruin the biggest event Alto has seen in years. The story celebrates simple pleasures, civic spirit and a can-do attitude. The illustrations are full of life; the scenes of Lentil practicing harmonica in the tub or of grumpy Sneep perched atop the train station roof sucking a lemon are unforgettable.
Margaret Hannon is a homeschooling mother. She and her husband live with five of their eight children in Bolton, MA.