When I was about twelve, I made my childhood best friend furious. It was her birthday, but instead of participating in her party, I was curled up with a book on her couch. Reading is a worthy activity (and a passion of mine), but as if reading at a party isn’t bad enough, my list of literary sins groweth, with the most egregious being: I read too quickly. Some, like the inestimable Alexandra DeSanctis, are blessed with both speed-reading abilities and comprehension. I, apparently, have neither. Due to this terrible character flaw, it wasn’t until a few years ago that I came to fully appreciate the wit and cleverness of author and illustrator Robert McCloskey.
Many readers may know McCloskey’s name thanks to his 1941 book Make Way for Ducklings, which earned him a Caldecott award. Set in Boston, the story follows Mr. and Mrs. Mallard as they search for a suitable place to build a nest and raise their young. Haughty (fake) swans, kindly policemen, and a march across town captured the hearts and imaginations of readers everywhere, but especially in Boston, where there is even a statue of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings.
Born in 1914 in Hamilton, Ohio (my home state and my dad’s hometown), McCloskey had a deep interest in art from an early age, especially in sculpture. He won a scholarship to Vesper George School of Art, which took him to Boston, after which he moved to New York City to study at the National Academy of Design.
According to some accounts, McCloskey realized that his professional art career was not taking off, and he decided to turn to the more lucrative venture of book-writing and illustration. Besides Make Way for Ducklings, two of his other well-known picture books are One Morning in Maine and Blueberries for Sal, both of which are set up on the coast, where the author had settled with his wife and two daughters. Ohio must’ve never been far from his mind though, because in 1943, he published Homer Price, a collection of tales set in Centerburg, Ohio (which, in fact, is known as the “True Heart of Ohio,” being the geographical center of the state), and featuring the classically named youth.
This gem of a book captures the spirit of the Midwest, exaggerating — but not mocking — its characters and foibles. Case in point: In “The Case of the Sensational Scent,” Homer calls the sheriff to tell him he’s found the bank robbers everyone’s been searching for. He tells the sheriff the robbers “must have a dozen or two [guns],” to which the sheriff replies: “They have, huh? Well, I tell you, sonny, I’m just about to get my hair cut, so you jest sorta keep your eye on ’em and I’ll be out there in about an hour or so. That’ll give them time to sleep; then some of the boys and me can walk right in and snap the bracelets on ’em.” Feels like Mayberry, right?
The cast of characters is riotous: town bum Dulcy Dooner, Homer’s labor-saving-device-obsessed Uncle Ulysses, and the sheriff who is always mixing up his words (“That was a wandy dedding, I mean a dandy wedding . . .”; “if it ain’t the robio raiders, I mean radio robbers!”).
McCloskey seems to have had a wry sense of humor, and readers must pay attention to details when reading these tales. For you see, each chapter has a bit of a twist, a mystery, if you will, and also a joke. There’s the doughnut machine that turns out doughnuts like clockwork, but mysteriously refuses to stop. The aftershave robbers. The fake superhero. But it was the story “Mystery Yarn” that tested my reading comprehension and saw me fail.
A brief synopsis: Two men, the sheriff and Uncle Telemachus (McCloskey must’ve been on a Greek kick), are vying for the hand of the eligible Miss Terwilliger. Both men have been saving string for years, winding it into giant balls, and they decide to have a contest at the local fair to see who has the most string. Whoever loses has to leave town and give full courting rights to the winner until Miss Terwilliger makes up her mind on which to marry. Unbeknownst to the lovers, the lady has also been saving yarn for years, and she has entered the contest along with them. The contest’s outcome surprises all the men in town, but the ladies (and our observant protagonist, Homer) just smile knowingly.
Two years ago, I finally picked up on what those wise ladies (and Homer) had known all along. Read for yourself, and see if you don’t at least crack a smile.
In 1951, McCloskey published Centerburg Tales, as the sequel to Homer Price. While the original book’s stories are the better of the two, Centerburg Tales has its own moments of fun, from the giant ragweed trees to the mysterious song no one can stop singing. These hilarious tales will delight readers just as much as the artwork, for McCloskey had a way with facial expressions that tell a whole story on their own. This is especially true in my favorite McCloskey book, Lentil.
Lentil, the titular character, adores music, but is distraught because he can’t sing. To remedy this, he learns to play the harmonica, becoming quite the expert. It is his harmonica and some quick thinking that end up saving the day from the town crank, Old Sneep, who tries to ruin a local event by sucking on a lemon, making everyone’s mouths pucker. These scenes of Sneep with his lemon and the townspeople with puckered lips always make me chuckle.
From the clever stories and funny characters to the nifty contraptions and detailed artwork, Robert McCloskey has truly given the world endearing and engaging tales for all ages and any era.