Robert McCloskey used to describe his writing career as "sort of an accident." The two-time winner of the Caldecott Medal (for distinguished children's literature) never intended to have stories accompany his pictures: They just happened on their own. "I really think up stories in pictures and just fill in between the pictures with a sentence or a paragraph or a few pages of words." Those words, in Lentil, Blueberries for Sal, Ducklings, and One Morning in Maine, have made McCloskey a wildly popular author and illustrator-something he never intended either.
McCloskey was born in Hamilton, Ohio. Like a typical suburban child, he went to public school in the morning and piano lessons in the afternoon. He differed from his friends, though, in his love for music; he followed the piano with lessons in harmonica, drums, and oboe. "The musician's life was the life for me," he remembered, "that is, until I became interested in things electrical and mechanical." McCloskey's next passion filled his family's house with motors and parts, wires, and lots of flying sparks. "The inventor's life was the life for me," he thought, "that is, until I started making drawings for the high school annual."
Though he never fully abandoned music or inventing, McCloskey found a strong love for art. He drew throughout high school and won a scholarship to the Vesper George Art School in Boston. In 1934, he received his first prominent commission, working on bas-reliefs for Hamilton's municipal building. As a professional artist, McCloskey moved to New York and entered the National Academy of Design. He exhibited his work and was given the President's Award; he also had exhibits at the Tiffany Foundation and at the Society of Independent Artists in Boston. Despite a prominent start and two summers spent painting on Cape Cod, McCloskey's art never fully took off. "I never sold an oil painting, only a few watercolors at the most modest prices, and financially my art career was a bust." With few options left, he went to see a children's book editor. He remembers the meeting more in its effect on him than the details: "I don't remember just the words she used to tell me to get wise to myself and to shelve the dragons, Pegasus, and limpid pool business and learn how and what to "art" with. I think we talked mostly of Ohio." That discussion, and the editor's advice, changed McCloskey's life.
Back in Ohio, McCloskey used his childhood for inspiration, and Lentil was born. The story of a young boy and his harmonica was published in 1978; soon after, McCloskey moved to Boston for another art project. He painted outdoor murals with artist Francis Scott Bradford amidst the "traffic problems" with local ducks. As with Lentil, his surroundings brought inspiration, and he got the idea for Make Way for Ducklings. To properly study his subjects, McCloskey bought "four squawking mallards" and took them home to his apartment. "I spent the next weeks on my hands and knees," he said, "armed with a box of Kleenex and a sketchbook, following the ducks around the studio and observing them in the bathtub."
The illustrations were finished early, but writing the story proved more difficult. McCloskey rewrote the book over and over and over, changing bits and pieces every time. Though it must have been frustrating, he didn't regret it -- it took him several versions to come up with the right duck names (Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack). The finished product was a big hit; Make Way for Ducklings won the Caldecott Medal and has sold more than two million copies to date.
In 1943, McCloskey published his third book, Homer Price, about a young inventor. It was so popular that several years later he wrote a sequel, Centerburg Tales. He served as a sergeant in World War II, and then moved to Maine with his wife and two daughters. The family's island home and New England lifestyle became the new settings of McCloskey's books, and he painted his daily life into his stories. "Sal," the main character of Blueberries for Sal and One Morning in Maine, is based off his daughter Sally; Penny, the family's English setter, and Mozzarella, the black cat, also make appearances. McCloskey's sixth book, Time of Wonder, won the 1958 Caldecott Medal, and he became the first author to win two of the awards. He was given many other awards for his writing, including honorary doctorates from Miami University at Oxford, Ohio and Mount Holyoke College in South Hadley, Massachusetts. His hometown of Hamilton, Ohio has a "Lentil Park" and a statue of the character and his dog.
Robert McCloskey died on June 30, 2003, in Deer Isle, Maine. His books are still read by thousands of parents and children; because of him, kids from Ohio can read about blueberry picking in Maine, and children in Maine can pretend they play harmonica for their Ohio town. Though he started out as a musician and inventor, and then became an artist, McCloskey found another passion in writing. He once told an interviewer that publishing Lentil was more exciting than winning the Caldecott Medals: "…it was as though I was sort of tied up in a paper bag or in a gunny sack with a rope around the neck of it, and all of a sudden…everything sort of spilled out! Voom!"