Author Review: Robert McCloskey

I started off on reading Robert McCloskey way back when my son and I read Homer Price, like a few years ago. Shortly after, I reviewed the classic, Make Way for Ducklings, and then got Lentil from the library. All this time later, I have read all of his picture books (which aren’t many), and can give a review here.

Robert McCloskey was a well-known author and illustrator who wrote and illustrated from the 1940s to the 1960s. Despite many awards and honors, he then stopped writing his own books and lived another forty years. Some of his titles have become classics and a few of them not as much, though they are all beautifully illustrated and full of calm, quaint, and slightly magical stories. They often portray the people and places in McCloskey’s life, including his daughters, Sally and Jane, and his wife. His books are:

Over all, McCloskey’s picture books tend to have participatory noises that a parent can make while reading aloud (from seagulls to boat engines). They also tend to have that touch of magic realism or the absurd, which is especially interesting when juxtaposed against the quiet, calm of the normalcy he mostly portrays. His stories take place mostly in Ohio (his place of origin) and Maine (where he and his family would summer). Blueberries for Sal and Lentil you can read in well under ten minutes, but the rest of them are longer for picture books, and are going to set you back more like 15 minutes.

I started at the beginning, with Lentil. (McCloskey has a thing for bizarre names.) It is about a boy (Lentil) who can’t sing and can’t pucker his lips to whistle, so he learns to play the harmonica. When his small town’s most important citizen comes back into town, old Sneep causes trouble that only Lentil can undo. It’s a cute story. If you know Homer Price and Make Way for Ducklings, you know this story. It’s old-fashioned, with sketched drawings that come straight from a time and a place, the Midwest of the 50s, no apologies. I liked it, with its touch of magic realism.

One Morning in Maine is a good read for a child who has just lost his or her first tooth, or is about to. It does have a brief message of “big girls don’t cry,” at least over small things, and it also drags on a bit. It’s a day-in-the-life of a family (McCloskey’s family) on a Maine island, but it centers on Sal losing her first tooth and becoming a “big girl.” It features a characteristic love of and respect for nature and also of humanity.

The very popular Blueberries for Sal has especially beautiful illustrations, which is saying a lot because McCloskey’s illustrations, though typically black and white and sketch-y, are so detailed and accurate and observant, so reverent toward nature and people and the small things, that they inspired me to awe. There is a tension in this book that is caused, I supposed, by being modern. I mean, as a mom I am reading about a bear in close proximity to the mom and child and I’m freaking out. But it’s not meant to be that way. It’s another gentle, even idyllic, tale about daily life and small things: a mom and daughter picking blueberries to can. Blueberries for Sal is a good one.

When McCloskey wrote Time of Wonder, he made the transition to color illustrations. They are different is style, being a lot less detailed. His story-telling style also shifted, here, and Time of Wonder is McCloskey’s furthest afield: told in present tense, second-person, it’s almost more of a long poem. It sounds like a meditation, maybe, not a traditional story, even though it is a story, about the end of summer and the coming of a hurricane. The illustrations, though different, are still very skilled and beautiful.

Burt Dow, Deep Water Man was my least favorite, largely due to the illustrations and some the repetitiveness. The whales are the least realistic of all McCloskey’s illustrations, and I sort of mourned when I saw them. Otherwise, the story is really cute. I just was sad that he didn’t go his usual route with those darned whales: they looked like cartoons, not like keen observation of a creature.

Buying all of McCloskey’s library won’t set you back much, and I definitely recommend his books for your children’s library. In fact, they’re not the be missed, all the way from Homer Price to Time of Wonder, but maybe not Burt Dow. It’s up to you.

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