Nonfiction Monday: "Robert McClosky: A Private Life in Words and Pictures"

This must be the year for personal reading challenges – I seem to find them at every turn and want to sign up immediately!  Part of this stems from the fact that I have let my reading life down in the past year.  Apart from professional reading, I have done little to nurture and encourage the other half of my reading brain – the non-teaching-read-because-it’s-good-for-you  half. So here is another challenge: Kid Lit Frenzy and The Nonfiction Detectives – two literature blogs I follow closely – have teamed up for a Nonfiction Picture book challenge.  Actually, you set the challenge for yourself, which is perfectly doable.  My goal is to read at least two nonfiction picture books per week  – this is an area I need to broaden in my sixth grade reading workshop, and our local library has an amazing YA section that I know I can rely upon as a constant source of great selections to read and choose from.

Since it’s Nonfiction Monday anyway over at The Nonfiction Detectives, I had already read my “book of the week”:  Robert McClosky: A Private Life in Words and Pictures,  by his daughter, Jane McClosky.

 This gorgeously illustrated book (all of them, belovedly familiar and brand new to the eye, are by Robert McClosky)  is both an autobiographical sketch of growing up as well a portrait of an author/illustrator.  Jane McClosky writes that her father was a shy and private man, someone who lived by is standard response to people who told him their ideas for a children’s book – ” Don’t talk about it. Do it.”  As she puts it:

“My understanding of my father came from detective work, watching him and thinking about him and what he said and didn’t say, and reading his books and looking at his pictures.”

Her detective work makes for a beautiful memoir, a remembrance of the places and people that inspired McClosky to craft his stories and set them against evocative illustrations.  Who can ever forget this illustration from “Make Way For Ducklings”:

 or this one, from “Blueberries for Sal”:

 I’ve read each of these books many times over, and yet the illustrations never fail to take my breath away – the details in the expressions, the way the bodies lean, the eyes crinkle and the foreheads furrow are so expressive.  So, too are the paintings, many of them of and about the Maine coastline where McClosky had a home and raised his family over many years:

As well as I know his books, however, I knew very little about McClosky himself.  His last book was published in 1963 – although he continued to paint, write and experiment with other forms of creative expression (including puppet making, which was such a surprise!).  Jane, who always called her father Bob, writes of growing up in Maine, New York, and Mexico, barely conscious of her father’s growing fame as a successful children’s book author.  One summer, when the author was about twelve, her older sister received a letter addressed, quite simply, to: Sally McClosky, Penobscot, Maine.  “That was my first understanding,” she writes, “that my family might be known in the larger world, and that my father’s reputation was probably the reason.”
The family travels and moves around quite a bit, and there are lovely stories of discovering and taking pleasure in the visuals of wherever they are.  As shy and cryptic as he may have been, the author evidently had a deep connection with her father, and her reminiscences are filled with affectionate details and insights into her father’s creative life.  Deer Island, their home in Maine, is really at the center of this book – even when they are living far away in Mexico – and the family life the McClosky’s wove together there is captured beautifully many times.

The book ends when Jane visits the family home after her father’s death to inventory his paintings.  Outside their cabin, after a day of discovery, she sits on the lawn and begins to cry:

“I was enjoying this sweet, sad time of being on the island, when a seagull landed on the house roof where the chimney had been.  He looked at me intently for some minutes.  Then, the gull flew down to the new neck that replaced the old terrace.  We sat for a long while, and I cried for my father’s life and for my own, and for the love we shared.”

This is a book to keep close by and rifle through from time to time, savoring a painting here and a memory there. 

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5 thoughts on “Nonfiction Monday: "Robert McClosky: A Private Life in Words and Pictures"

  1. Tara, thank you for this beautifully written review. I have loved McClosky for a long time, with my students, children, & now grandchildren. What a gift he's given us! I didn't know about this book & you've made it sound so special. One of my favorite memories is seeing the duck statues in Boston Common & seeing my middle school students clamor to have their photos taken with the ducks. That's how special his books are.

  2. I have this book on my table, and as a lover of McClosky and Maine have been rifling through, as you suggest. But I'm longing for some time to spend a good chunk of time with it and actually read! And, yes, as Linda points out — Nancy Shoen's tribute to the ducks are one of my favorite parts of Boston!

  3. I don't know that my students would be interested in this, but I may take a look at it just for me. My library doesn't have this one, yet, but they do have a McCloskey treasury by Leonard Marcus I may have to take a look at.

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