Let Mr. McCloskey Tell You a Story

THERE are all sorts of things you can put in a book: real things, made-up things, words, pictures, even noises and smells. Robert McCloskey uses all those things.

He has written eight children's books. He drew all the pictures in them, and in six books written by other people.

Mr. McCloskey is known for the story of the ducklings who followed their mother from the Charles River to the Boston Public Garden, with the police stopping traffic so they could cross the streets.

His drawings show you just how Mrs. Mallard looked, tipping her nose in the air and walking along with an extra swing to her waddle, and how little all her ducklings were, following her in a line. He even tells what kind of noise Mr. Mallard made - "Weebk!" - when he first met up with a bicycle. That's all in the book "Make Way for Ducklings" that Robert McCloskey wrote more than 50 years ago.

I wanted to find out how he put everything together in his stories, so I asked to see him. He invited me and my family to visit him on his island in Maine. He met us at a dock and took us there in his boat. It's a small island, and it looks a little like the island in "One Morning in Maine," another book he wrote, about a girl who lost her first tooth in the mud while she was digging clams, but made a wish on it anyway. (She got the wish.)

Mr. McCloskey's island is like a wish come true. There are tall, tall pine trees. Ferns grow underneath them, and plenty of big rocks and boulders are piled all around. A comfortable house overlooks the water, with a fireplace on the outside for cooking out. There is also a boat house where he can work on his drawings and projects.

Mr. McCloskey, his wife, Peggy, and their daughters, Sally and Jane, lived there every summer while the girls were growing up.

Mr. McCloskey said to call him Bob - just as his grandchildren do. He's tall and has gray hair. He's writing a book for grown-ups, now, about Hamilton, Ohio, where he grew up.

But he still likes to draw, and he still had time to talk to my two little boys and show them where the sea urchins live near his dock.

While I asked him about his books, the boys went swimming with their dad in a tide pool. He remembered that he used to draw pictures of his daughters all the time, when they were little.

"They didn't realize other children didn't have to pose for their father," he told me. So they didn't mind too much, and they weren't too surprised when they sometimes turned up in books.

Everything can turn into a story for Robert McCloskey. Sounds, especially. "Blueberries for Sal" got started on a family outing. "I always carry a sketchbook with me," he said. "Peggy was picking blueberries. I was dozing, half asleep in the sun, and sketching. I heard `kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk.' That was the start of it." "Kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk," is the noise the blueberries make when Little Sal, in the book, drops them into her bucket.

He made up the part about a mix-up where Little Sal follows a mother bear around Blueberry Hill and Little Bear follows Little Sal's mother. The mother bear and Sal's mother find their own children again by the sounds they make.

"Putt-putt-putt-Bang!" is the noise an engine made that Bob owned, and a friend of his, Burt Dow, admired it. Does the name Burt Dow ring a bell? He's in "Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man." He has a boat called the Tidely-Idley, and it has an engine that goes "clackety-BANG, clackety-BANG!"

Well, in real life, Bob liked the Tidley-Idley, and Burt Dow liked the engine that went "putt-putt-putt-Bang!" So they traded. "By that time, the Tidely-Idley didn't float," said Bob, so he just brought the old boat home to his island and left it on the beach.

"The caulking was hanging down like tinsel from a Christmas tree," he said, but he kept it around because "it had such character, and Burt had such character. It was a couple of years before the whale thing occurred to me." Then he got the idea for a story about Burt Dow meeting a whale, hiding from a storm in its stomach, and putting a peppermint-striped Band-Aid on its tail. And there was the Tidely-Idley - in a book. It all started with a "putt-putt-putt-Bang!"

Like Homer Price, another person you might know from reading Robert McCloskey books, Bob likes to know how things work. Homer liked to put radios together, with a friendly skunk named Aroma for company, or try to fix his Uncle Ulysses's doughnut machine.

When he was a teenager, Bob wanted to be an inventor. "I was interested in mechanics," he said. "Then I made drawings for the school paper, cut in linoleum, before I graduated to wood, and finer and higher aspirations."

It was probably a good thing he was interested in mechanics, because the publishing company that made and sells his books kept inventing new, improved ways to get his drawings printed, so he kept having to draw them differently - sometimes backward, sometimes forward, sometimes bigger, sometimes as small as the book they were going into.

For his first books, he made the drawings on zinc printing plates, and then the plates had ink put on them and were pressed to paper, and there was the picture. He had to practice making the drawings on paper, because you can't erase on a zinc plate. "If you start scratching around, it goofs up," he said.

The picture had to be made exactly the same size it would appear in the book, and backward. This was especially hard, he remembered, when doing "all the little fingers and crowd scenes," because it's hard to draw that small. Later, for "One Morning in Maine," he drew pictures on acetate, which is like thin, clear plastic.

On foggy mornings in his boat house, he remembers, the corners of the acetate would buckle, but someone later invented a kind that stayed flat. He always had to practice, doing many sketches before he was ready to make the pictures exactly as they would appear in the books. He painted pictures in color for "Time of Wonder" and "Burt Dow." The pictures for "Time of Wonder" took him three years.

He didn't paint exactly what's on his island, but when you look around, it reminds you of that beautiful book, with all the pine trees, the green-blue water, and different-shaped islands and puffy clouds you can see from there.

They had to be done in the same size as they would be in the book. "It was a chore to try to be as free and loose in something as small as that," said Bob, but if you look at the pictures, they do look free and loose, like the feeling you get when you are on vacation, like the girls in the story.

After we talked, Bob took us back down to the dock and put us on his boat to take us back. It had been a nice day, and it was a little sad to be leaving. It was like the end of the summer as he wrote about it in "Time of Wonder."

He says: "Take a farewell look at the waves and sky. Take a farewell sniff of the salty sea. A little bit sad about the place you are leaving, a little bit glad about the place you are going."

I was happy I knew more about how Bob McCloskey made these books, and I was looking forward to going home and reading them again. My little boy was just plain happy.

As Bob started the boat engine (with a regular motorboat roar, not a clackety-BANG!") my son, who's five, said, "I love that sweet smell of gasoline!" We all laughed, because there were many sweeter smells around, like pine trees, warm earth, and the ocean. But I think he was so happy to have a ride in Bob's boat that the gasoline smelled sweetest of all to him.

* All the books mentioned in this story should be available at your library: "Make Way for Ducklings" (1941), "Homer Price" (1943), "Blueberries for Sal" (1948), "One Morning in Maine" (1952), "Time of Wonder" (1957), and "Burt Dow: Deep-Water Man" (1963). All were published by Viking Penguin, New York. `Kidspace' is a place on the Home Forum pages where kids can find stories that will spark imaginations, entertain with a tall tale, explain how things work, or describe a real-life event. These articles appear twice a month, always on a Tuesday.

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