Is there ever such a thing as a picture book with truly timeless appeal? Well, no, but some seem to come closer than others; Robert McCloskey’s books are up there.
In some ways, I sympathize with the slightly older Sal in One Morning in Maine; she and I didn’t just “lose” our first tooth in the ordinary humdrum run-of-the-mill way, but we both really did LOSE that precious thing–she in the mud of a clam flat and I amidst the gravel of a playground. Judging by the ratings on Goodreads (and number of libraries in Michigan which own them and bookstores which carry them) Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings is the most popular of his books with Blueberries for Sal a close second.
For those who haven’t paid attention to children’s literature for a few decades: in Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard overfly the greater Boston area in search of a nice safe place to hatch and raise the titular ducklings. Mrs. Mallard rejects all the possible nest sites–too many foxes or turtles or bicycles–until they spot a nice little island out in the middle of the Charles River, conveniently close to a police box on the shore with a sympathetic police officer called Michael who feeds them peanuts whenever they care to swim over. After the ducklings, Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack, hatch, both parents begin raising the kids together. After a time Mr. Mallard decides to go explore the river, promising to meet Mrs. Mallard and the babies in the Public Gardens in a week1. When Mrs. Mallard is satisfied with her offspring’s swimming and diving, coming when called and walking in a line, they set off to meet up with Mr. Mallard….but and a very important BUT, the parents have not taken into account TRAFFIC! Things turn out well, with a little help from Boston’s Finest, and the family is reunited. While the text is important to the story as a whole, “pre-literate” kids will be able to follow the story from the illustrations alone; McCloskey’s paid a great deal of attention to differentiating between all the ducklings (and all the kids on the swan boats!) and including recognizable (even today) Boston landmarks, as befits a Caldecott winner.
Blueberries for Sal is more of a read-aloud story–the text predominates although the illustrations are lovely and do augment the text. Here also the illustrations are (not surprisingly) a bit dated; while children’s styles are pretty timeless, adults’ hairstyles and ‘casual’ attire have changed quite a bit—I can’t today imagine the mother of a child Sal’s age these days would set out to pick blueberries in a neat skirt and sweater set. That said, children’s desire to “help” parents with housekeeping duties has not changed one bit over the decades…nor have their attempts at contribution improved much2. The story’s fairly simple: Sal and her mother set off to pick blueberries to can for the winter. Mama sets off to fill her mama-sized bucket and at first Sal trots close at mama’s heels, picking blueberries to put “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk” in her Sal-sized bucket, and scooping them out to gobble up as soon as the nice noise fades away. Unbeknownst to Mama and Sal, a Mama Bear and her unnamed Baby Bear have begin working their way up the opposite side of the blueberry patch hill to eat their fill of blueberries prior to their winter hibernation…and Baby Bear and Baby Human accidentally follow the wrong Mamas, much to the consternation of both Mamas, though the babies don’t seem terribly put out3. Two full bears go home down their side of the hill, while Sal and her mama go back down their side, with “a whole pail of blueberries and three more besides.”
Anthropomorphic? you betcha. Bears don’t have that much in the way of facial expressions on a good day, and ducks tend to avoid high traffic situations even when there’s a traffic cop at the corner. Technology and home economics have changed a great deal—I haven’t seen the clamp-down canning jars that appear in the endpapers of Blueberries for Sal used for canning in my lifetime though they’re still fine for storage. Police don’t patrol in quite the same way now as then, nor are they any longer more often Irish than any other nationality4, but “get help from the nice police officer when you want to cross the busy street” is a useful lesson now as it was then. While McCloskey’s books set in Maine might be more immediately meaningful for kids who’d grown up somewhere like Maine, there are plenty of object lessons for kids inland or elsewhere: what does a loon sound like? why are the bushes in Blueberries for Sal only knee height? what’s clam chowder taste like and why do you dig for clams? Would children’s literature be the poorer if these books were gone? I think so.
1tourists will recognize this as where the swan boats still ‘paddle’, although riders are asked NOT to feed the ducks, alas.
2remember Trixie “helping” her Daddy sort laundry in Knuffle Bunny?
3I love the illustration of Sal showing the three whole blueberries in her bucket to a horrified Mama Bear
4well, not outside Boston anyway