Mr. McCloskey’s Marvellous Mallards by Emma Bland Smith

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The story in Make Way for Ducklings is so well known that even those who haven’t read the book may be familiar with the statue of the mother duck and her ducklings that stands in the Boston Public Garden. Even those that have read the book, though, probably didn’t know how difficult it was for McCloskey to illustrate the ducks in such a satisfying way.

Mr. McCloskey’s Marvellous Mallards by Emma Bland Smith, illustrated by Becca Stadtlander (Calkins Creek, 2022), tells the story of “The Making of Make Way for Ducklings.” In fact, as this biographical picture book informs, young artist McCloskey struggled with drawing ducks. He had already written the story, but couldn’t seem to get the art right. Studying stuffed ducks in the museum didn’t help. Watching ducks from the side of a pond didn’t help. So, instead, McCloskey took home tiny, noisy ducklings! By watching the ducklings swim in his bathtub and live in his apartment, McCloskey got that intimate look at the birds that he needed in order to perfect the look of the ducks in his own book.

McCloskey’s story is inspirational: it’s about an artist that wanted to improve and worked hard to do so. Beyond the inspiration, the illustrations in Mr. McCloskey’s Marvellous Mallards bring out the hilarity of the situation. I hadn’t known that McCloskey was unmarried and had a roommate while he was bringing these ducks into his own home! What a mess that must have been! I especially like the page in which the grown-up ducks and the ducklings are causing complete chaos in his bathroom!

Stadtlander’s illustrations are unique from McCloskey, and that is intentional. Except for sample pages that imitate McCloskey’s art in process, Stadtlander’s illustrations stand alone. For example, they are colorful (McCloskey’s were not), and they are painted in gouache for the most part (McCloskey used pencil). But they serve different purposes. McCloskey was drawing a 1942 book for a story about a family of ducklings. Stadtlander is telling a story about an artist that happens to be illustrating a book about ducklings. Her illustrations are fantastic too, for a different purpose and in a different style. Both styles fit well together in this nonfiction account.

I’m glad Stadtlander didn’t try to completely imitate McCloskey’s style here: there is only one Make Way for Ducklings, and McCloskey has already nailed that into the canon of fantastic children’s literature. Mr. McCloskey’s Marvellous Mallards puts that fantastic book and its author into a historical context that we can all appreciate! This would be a nice companion to reading Make Way for Ducklings or for finding inspiration in developing talent.

Note: I received a digital copy of this book for review consideration.

Reviewed on November 4, 2022

About the author 

Rebecca Reid

Rebecca Reid is a homeschooling, stay-at-home mother seeking to make the journey of life-long learning fun by reading lots of good books. Rebecca Reads provides reviews of children's literature she has enjoyed with her children; nonfiction that enhances understanding of educational philosophies, history and more; and classical literature that Rebecca enjoys reading.

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