Robert McCloskey: Alive With Wonder In Maine

by Alexandra W. Pecci

In Robert McCloskey’s children’s books, Maine is a place where life moves with the shifting tides and seasons. It is a place where a hill thick with blueberries comes alive with curious surprises. Yet it is also a place that requires work, where you need to row a boat to the mainland to buy milk or repair engines, and batten down the hatches when a storm blows in.

McCloskey is arguably most well known for Make Way for Ducklings, which is set in Boston. However, his later books, including Blueberries for Sal, One Morning in Maine, and Time of Wonder, take place on islands off the coast of Maine, where McCloskey lived with his wife and daughters.

Born in Ohio in 1914, McCloskey seemed to think of himself as more of an illustrator than a writer. “It is just sort of an accident that I write books,” he once said. “I really think up stories in pictures and just fill in between the pictures with a sentence or a paragraph or a few pages of words.”  McCloskey studied art at the Vesper George School of Art in Boston and later at the National Academy of Design in New York. After two rather unsuccessful years of trying to sell his art, McCloskey turned to writing children’s books.  “My first book I wrote to have something to illustrate,” McCloskey said.  Despite being “sort of an accident,” McCloskey’s children’s books became instant classics. Although he wrote and illustrated only eight books, he won the Caldecott Medal twice: in 1941 for Make Way for Ducklings and again in 1957 for Time of Wonder.  In 2000, he was named a Living Legend by the Library of Congress.

>McCloskey’s love of Maine is revealed in his illustrations and prose. The full-color illustrations in Time of Wonder, capture why a book about a summer in Maine deserves such a title. Here, the island’s intricate secrets reveal themselves to those paying close attention. We hear “the sound of growing ferns, pushing aside dead leaves, unrolling their fiddleheads” and wait with electric anticipation as a storm approaches the island.

He also captures the fun of being a young child in Maine in the books Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine. In these books, we get a glimpse into everyday life on the island. A little girl named Sal and her mother pick blueberries for winter canning and have a funny mix-up with a bear and her cub, who are also stocking up on blueberries for winter. In One Morning in Maine, Sal runs to show her father a loose tooth before it falls out and gets lost in the mucky sand where they are digging for clams.

Additionally, McCloskey loved mechanical things, and while he was a school boy “built trains and cranes with remote controls, my family’s Christmas trees revolved, lights flashed and buzzers buzzed.”  Fellow writer and Caldecott Medal winner Marc Simont wrote in the August 1958 Horn Book Magazine that “Bob McCloskey’s talent for devising mechanical contraptions is topped only by his ability to turn out books that carry off the Caldecott Medal.”  The illustrations of the boat in One Morning in Mainereflect this affinity for the mechanical. The black and white drawings show the boat’s motor in exacting detail, from the whirring starter cord to the bolts that hold the motor to the stern. An illustration of a workshop where the motor is later repaired shows tools strewn across a work bench and floor, with saws and levels hanging from hooks on the walls.

It is no wonder that McCloskey gained an affinity for the mechanical since boating seemed to be a large part of his life.  Rumor has it that in order to visit a post office, the author would physically row to the mainland to post manuscripts to his publisher.  In fact, McCloskey’s books take place on the islands in Penobscot Bay, an area that today is popular with summer tourists. Deer Isle, where McCloskey lived before his death in 2003 at the age of 88, is now accessible by car.  A stunning suspension bridge, which spans across the crystal blue water, now connects the island and the mainland.  Views on both sides give way to the spectacular reds, yellows and oranges of the fall season.  Charming farmhouses, such as those in Scandinavian countries, spot the island, while newly built larger houses are perched on stilts, if close to the water.

A trend in McCloskey’s children’s books can be seen as he moves from the city of Boston, where he actually bought mallards from a poulty market to accurately capture a duck’s movements in Make Way For Ducklings, to the serene country life of the Maine islands, where the author fell in love with nature’s beauty, in particular, the sea.  This dominant factor, the ocean, is the driving force in many of his books.  In fact, McCloskey’s final book, Burt Dow: Deep Water Man, is about a retired fisherman who captains two boats: one he uses for small jobs and the other which sits on a most uncoventional “body of water”: his front lawn.  Today the billowing waves of the ocean break over weathered rocks, vivid flowers and glowing green vegetation.  Quaint New England bed and breakfasts, historic inns and even succulent, world-famous Maine red lobster cater to land-locked tourists.

McCloskey came to Deer Isle after World War II, perhaps to find peace after such a chaotic time in American history.  Throughout his watercolor illustrations, a reader can find peace as well by exploring the beauty of nature.  His words simply, yet exquisitely have the ability to give a child a sense of home, a sense of belonging, which McCloksey himself experienced while residing on his beloved Deer Isle.

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