Boston, Moscow, and Ducklings

ducklings sculpture

Do you remember Make Way for Ducklings?

Robert McCloskey told the tale of a duck family with eight small ducklings who make their way (with the help of a kindly policeman) through the Boston area. He wrote and illustrated the children’s story. The book, which features the story of a father duck going off on adventures, a mother duck seeking a home for her family, and eight small and at times rambunctious ducklings, was first published in 1941 and is turning seventy five years old this year.

The tale of the mallards, who decide to raise their family on an island in the Boston Public Garden, has sold more than two million copies. The endearing illustrations of the ducks and the engaging depictions of Boston geography have remained popular with children and adults across the decades. The book won the Caldecott Medal for McCloskey’s illustrations. The city of Boston loves the book, too: in 2003 it was made the official children’s book of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts in recognition of the attention brought to the city and of the love that the people of Boston and beyond have for the book.

R McCloskey Make Way for Ducklings illustration

A duck’s eye view of flying over the Charles, the swan boats in the Public Gardens and a footbridge there, and gates, brickwork, cars, people and streets of Boston all feature in the book. McCloskey attended art school in Boston and often fed ducks in the Public Garden as he walked to his classes. Later, this helped give him the idea for the story. He studied stuffed ducks and eventually even bought live ducks to frolic in his bathtub and run around his studio so he could get the drawing of them right.

beacon hill boston by kerry dexter

Buildings, cars, bridges, fences and gardens of Boston frame the story in Make Way for Ducklings. One of the neighborhoods the ducks visit is Beacon Hill, where the young illustrator was once hired to paint murals on the sides of a building. Though he was living in New York at the time he wrote Ducklings, McCloskey returned to Boston to sketch and make sure he got the well loved details of the city he remembered right too.

bosotn massachusetts by kerry dexter

Years later, the ducklings took on another form: Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings became part of the life of Boston’s Public Garden themselves.

Sculptor Nancy Schon was commissioned to create the ducks in bronze. The sculpture, which spans some thirty five feet in length (the ducks are many times life size) and sets the ducks atop weathered Boston cobblestones, was installed in 1987 and quickly became a part of the fabric of Boston beloved by children and adults alike. Kids (and adults) love to climb on the statutes, to hug them and pat them, so much so that park workers say the sculptures never need to be polished. It’s also not unusual to see the ducks decked out in holiday finery, for Christmas, say, or Saint Patrick’s Day, and you might also find them wearing hats and sweaters in the colors of local sports teams in season.

There’s an international connection, too: there are duckling sculptures in Moscow, in Novodevichy Park.

Moscow duckilngs

In 1991, then US First Lady Barbara Bush and then Russian First Lady Raisa Gorbachev visited the duck sculpture in Boston. Bob McCloskey’s daughter Jane writes “Mrs. Bush decided that, as part of the peacemaking effort between the two nations, the children of the United States should give replicas of the Ducks to the children of the Soviet Union. The Duck replicas were cast and shipped to Moscow. When the peace ceremonies were celebrated and the START treaty signed, Nancy [Schon] and Bob [McCloskey] went with the Bushes to the Soviet Union to take part in the Duck installation.”

These days, the ducks — the real ones and the ones in bronze — in Boston’s Public Garden and in the book Make Way for Ducklings remain as popular as ever, with visitors and Bostonians alike.

Photograph of Moscow ducklings courtesy of Nancy Schon. Photographs of Boston ducklings and Beacon hill sites by Kerry Dexter. Thank you for respecting copyright.

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