Saturday, August 6, 2016

Why We Need Robert McCloskey's Books in a World at War

While I am sure that I probably read Robert McCloskey's classic books like Make Way for Ducklings and Blueberries for Sal when I was a child, I didn't really discover Robert McCloskey until my mom recommended his book One Morning in Maine when I was a new mother. I found a beautiful copy at a thrift store on vacation, and fell in love with the book. I have only visited Maine a few times on vacation, but there was something warm and friendly and rooted in place about the book that drew me in. It's a long book by today's standards: 63 pages to the typical 32 and, yet, I could read it over and over again because of all the unique details about life in Maine: the loons and seagulls, and little Sal losing her tooth while digging for clams with her father. Then there is the adventure of Sal and her little sister Jane going on the boat with their Dad to Buck's Harbor and telling the exciting news of the lost tooth to all the town regulars, getting a free ice cream cone, and being excited about having clam chowder for lunch. There was a simple joy that exuded from the pages.

Later I found out that McCloskey based the book on his own life. After returning from World War II, he bought an island in Maine where his family lived six months of the year. The daughters in the book are based on his real daughters, Sarah and Jane, and his wife posed for the drawings in Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine. You also might recognize this guy...

I recently read a biography of Robert McCloskey by Gary D. Schmidt (yes, the same Gary D. Schmidt that is the Newbury-award-winning author of The Wednesday Wars). In his conclusion to the book, Schmidt really captured why McCloskey's books were so popular and needed when they came out in the mid-Twentieth-century, but also why we need them now...
 "McCloskey's vision of children's literature is the more remarkable considering that the two decades of his career in children's literature spanned the most turbulent time of the twentieth century...In the midst of this dreadful world--in the midst of folly and violence and threatened destruction--appeared a series of books that celebrated childhood, family, friendship, the natural world--in short, life itself. If this seems an anomaly, it might be noted that McCloskey's vision in his children's books is one of absolute affirmation of the permanence and beauty and significance of the world. "You snap off the light and row toward the dock as the stars are gazing down, their reflections gazing up, " he writes in Time of Wonder. "In the quiet of the night one hundred pairs of eyes are watching you, while one pair of eyes is watching over all."(28). The numinous quality of this affirmation denies the despair that might be caused by a world at war.
...The worlds of the Midwest, Boston, and the Maine coast are benevolent, full of wonder, physically splendid. They are homes with all that that word connotes; warmth and security, family relationships, innocent joys, the freedom for children to grow and relish the unalloyed splendors and mysteries of the world that lives close about them. McCloskey's strength was his ability to deny the primacy of a world that chose to war with itself. "Yes, that's true," he might say, "but come see this. It is ever so much more important." And the reader is drawn from sadness to joy, from despair to hope, from denial to affirmation."
 In a world wracked by violence, terrorism, and fear-mongering politicians, what can we as parents do to maintain hope and pass it along to our children? S. D. Smith, the author of The Green Ember, had an excellent article at called "Stories are Light: Ranting is Arson." I recommend reading the entire article, but to give you a taste, he advised. "By the time the election comes, it’s too late. It’s been too late for a long time. Our hearts were already won over by the stories we loved as children, the tales that shaped us as profoundly as anything else in life. Likely more." and "What is one thing you can do today to “save the world?” Read your children a good story. It may seem unsatisfying when compared with gearing up to blast the internet in a fever of pyromaniacal rage. But it will do a lot more good."

Robert McCloskey's books are a wonderful place to start. Pick blueberries with Sal, get an ice cream cone in Buck's Harbor with little Jane, learn to play a harmonica with Lentil, find a home in the Boston Public Gardens with Mr. and Mrs. Mallard, and make way too many donuts with Homer Price. In a time that feels cold and hopeless, we need books that help us dwell in a world of "warmth and security, family relationships, innocent joys, the freedom for children to grow and relish the unalloyed splendors and mysteries of the world that lives close about them."

If you like this post, you may also enjoy more Robert McCloskey goodness here: Why Our Children Need Art (and Picture Books)


  1. Thank you for the information on Robert McCloskey's books. I have never read any of them.