BOSTON — HUNDREDS of children, parents, and grandparents paraded into the Boston Public Garden two weeks ago to celebrate the 50th anniversary of ``Make Way for Ducklings,'' the children's tale that has sold more than 2 million copies. Youngsters dressed up as characters from the Robert McCloskey classic. There were even a few miniature policemen made to look like Michael, the friendly officer who helps Mrs. Mallard and her eight offspring - Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack - get from the Charles River, through Boston traffic, to the Public Garden.
Although known as a private person, Mr. McCloskey appeared briefly during the festivities, organized by the Historic Neighborhoods Foundation, sponsor of Ducklings Day since 1978. The group uses the event to kick off an annual season of walking tours of Boston neighborhoods for school-age children.
Nina Meyer, the foundation's executive director, considers the ``Ducklings'' story an ideal vehicle for helping children establish positive feelings about city life.
``The ducks in the book are extremely urban ducks; they know how to negotiate through their environment,'' she says. ``I think that is a very important message, especially today, when cities are written about in such negative, lurid terms.''
Ironically, rural Maine, not Boston or some other city, became the regular backdrop for many of McCloskey's later books. ``I had a very definite change in my lifestyle about then,'' he says, speaking on the phone from his Maine home on Deer Isle. A small-town Ohio boy, he had satisfied his taste for big cities, living in Boston and New York as a student and artist/author. As a young father fresh out of the Army, he bought an island off the Maine coast ``on an impulse.'' His fam ily lived there a good part of the year, but later, as his children reached school age, they spent more time near New York.
``Ducklings,'' McCloskey's second book, was based on observations he'd made while walking through the Public Garden as an art student in Boston. The project was completed in New York, though, where he bought four ducks to ``model'' in his live-in studio. ``Some of the neighbors must have wondered why they kept hearing ducks in the morning and in the evenings,'' he says.
McCloskey says he's ``never had an all-consuming desire to put out a message or deliver some earth-shaking notion'' and viewed ``Ducklings,'' for ages 5 to 8, simply as a ``story children would enjoy.''
The book received the Caldecott Medal, given annually to the best American picture book for children. McCloskey's editor had to tell him the significance of the honor, which was still relatively new in the largely underdeveloped children's book field. In 1958, McCloskey became the first artist to receive the Caldecott twice for ``Time of Wonder,'' but his story of a summer in Maine never approached the spectacular popularity of ``Ducklings.''
The book's appeal cuts across racial and ethnic boundaries. Mary Margaret Pitts, a children's librarian at the Boston Public Library, says the 15 or 20 available copies are as popular with children of color as they are with white youngsters, whose parents may have grown up with ``Ducklings'' in their homes.
McCloskey says he keeps one copy of the first edition, for which he made the printing plates, at his Maine residence. ``Books have a way of just coming and going,'' he says, ``but that one I try to keep around.''