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Top 100 Picture Books #6: Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey

#6 Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McCloskey (1941)
163 points

McCloskey’s attention to detail and marvelous storytelling are a magical combination. – Heather Christensen

I actually remember, when I was a very little girl, hearing Captain Kangaroo read this book on television. I remember the way the camera panned over the ducks almost getting hit by the cars. Later, I bought the book and read it many times to my sons. Best of all, when we visited the Boston Public Garden when my firstborn son was two years old, we visited the statues of Mrs. Mallard, followed by Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack. I took a picture of my son on Mrs. Mallard’s back, then taped that sweet picture into the front of our book. – Sondra Eklund

Take a back seat, LeVar Burton.  Clearly your book recommendation skills still pale in comparison to the Cap’n.

The synopsis from the publisher reads, “The busy Boston streets are too dangerous for eight little ducklings! But with a little help from a friendly policeman Mrs. Mallard and her family arrive safely at their new home. The public garden was no place for ducklings when they were first born, but now they are old enough to brave the raucous crowds and swim with the giant swan boats.”

I once posted that my Interesting Fact of the Day was that Robert McCloskey was 28 when he won a Caldecott for Make Way for Ducklings.  In fact, I do believe he was the youngest person to win a Caldecott Award until a certain Ms. Erin E. Stead happened to come along. 

Minders of Make-Believe discusses one of the best publicity stunts for a soon-to-be released picture book on record today.  “The editors of Life became interested in what McCloskey was up to when they learned (doubtless thanks  to a well-placed telephone call from May Massee) that the artist had recently purchased a crate-load of ducklings at a local market and hauled them up to his West Twelfth Street apartment to serve as life models . . . . A reporter and photographer were dispatched to the fourth-floor walkup, and the piece was put to bet complete with candid shots of ducklings scrambling adorably up and down the artist’s sleeve.”  Granted the German invasion of Poland scrapped the story, but it would’ve been brilliant!  THAT is how you market a book, people.

Since Life digitized its collection onto Google Image, I had hoped to find the shots mentioned here.  Maybe it’s because the story never ran, but the only thing I was able to find when I put in “Robert McCloskey” was this image of him playing the harmonica.

We take what we can get.  Lovely hands.

100 Best Books for Children reports that the original working title of this book was Boston Is Lovely in the Spring.  Had they kept it, imagine the gift this would have been to the Boston Tourism Board.  The book also points out that the original names of the ducks were “Mary, Martha, Phillys, Theodore, Beatrice, Alice, George, and John.”  The world would be a poorer place indeed without an “Ouack” in it.

There’s an interview with Mr. McCloskey that discusses this book over at The Horn Book from NPR circa 1986.  You may either listen or read the recap, as you prefer.  I like that those first names of the ducks he used were “names of all the girls I knew, not even in alphabetical order.”

Of course the Boston Public Garden created a duckling statue, that is well worth visiting, back in October 4, 1987.  The artist was Nancy Schon who discusses the commission a little on her website.  A kind of McCloskey specialist, she also created the Lentil sculptures over in Hamilton, Ohio.

Interestingly, Boston is not the only city containing statues of the ducks.  Perhaps you have heard of a little place called Novodevichy Park, Moscow?  No?  Oh.  Well they have some too.  A gift from Barbara Bush to Soviet First Lady Raisa Gorbachev.  Ms. Schon did that sculpture as well.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.


  1. I was driving up the freeway north of Salt Lake City the other day and saw a mother duck determinedly leading her line of ducklings across the freeway. Yikes! They were going to come to a rather tall median, and not a single friendly Robert McCloskey cop in sight. At least the traffic was light. But my mind immediately flew to this book, as you can imagine!

  2. Yes, those Cap’n Kangaroo books! Back when I was 4 years old, my big brother & sister were in school and my younger sister was a baby, and I watched Cap’n Kangaroo at home with my Mom with great fascination. (As 3rd of 13, that was probably THE time in my life of the most parental attention!) I STILL remember him reading some books that we didn’t own at home and that entranced me — Make Way for Ducklings, Caps for Sale, Millions of Cats, Tikki-Tikki-Tembo. All of these books are in your Top 100, so the Cap’n definitely knew how to pick ’em, did he not?

    My parents didn’t own those books, but I made sure to buy all of them for my kids. I still hear the Cap’n’s voice reading them in my head.