Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards: An Interview with Author Emma Bland Smith
Aaaaa! I’m so excited!
Okay, so you know how sometimes I’ll do a cover reveal for you and you’ll think to yourself, “Now come on, Betsy. I’ve known about that book for months”? Well, my friends, those days are long gone. Today I have a book that the author herself had to alert me to. We’re talking a November release today, people!
Show of hands. Who here reading this blog post today likes picture book biographies of picture book creators? Mmm hmm. Very interesting. You know, occasionally I’ll pop up behind a David Small or a Linda Sue Park and whisper in their ear, real quiet like, “You realize they’re going to write a picture book bio of your life someday after you’re dead, don’t you?” Oh, they love me when I do that.
Mind you, you’ve nothing to fear if your author is as dedicated and respectful as Emma Bland Smith. She’s the author of the upcoming Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards, a story that is very near and dear to my heart (and you’ll soon see why). Here’s the plot description:
“This behind-the-scenes look at the creation of the classic and beloved picture book Make Way for Ducklings will captivate young artists, writers, readers, and animal lovers alike.
While writing and illustrating the beloved picture book Make Way for Ducklings, Robert McCloskey brings a flock of ducklings into his tiny New York City apartment. But an artist + a bunch of ducklings in his apartment = chaos! There are ducklings in the bathtub and ducklings in the kitchen, quacking at dawn and sitting on his desk. Can he learn to draw them just right before they grow too big?
This glimpse into the creation of a much-loved story for kids is a must-read for fans of children’s books, or for anyone who is interested in the creative process and the importance of persistence.”
Emma was kind enough to answer some of my questions about this book.
Betsy Bird: Emma! So glad you can join us! So how did you first run across the story of Robert McCloskey and the ducklings he temporarily took into his tiny Greenwich Village apartment?
Emma Bland Smith: At some point while I was poking around online I came across the rather hilarious anecdote about Robert McCloskey living with a whole bunch of ducks to do the illustrations for Make Way for Ducklings. Naturally I was charmed and delighted—but also, I instantly thought this could make a great picture book. Really, I don’t think I’ve read any other classic picture book origin story that reaches this level of absurdity. It sounds made up—but it’s not! And that’s magic for a nonfiction picture book.
BB: What kind of research did you get to do for this book? Who did you talk to? Where did you go? What did you read?
EBS: I read every interview, article, book, and blog post about Robert McCloskey I could find. I read your book, Betsy (Wild Things: Acts of Mischief in Children’s Literature), and listened to your podcast episode about Make Way for Ducklings. Leonard Marcus wrote quite a lot about McCloskey, and Gary Schmidt’s thorough biography was excellent. (Gary was also kind enough to read my manuscript to check for accuracy.) And McCloskey’s Caldecott acceptance speech was a valuable primary source—that is where he talks about buying and living with the ducklings. Most exciting, perhaps, was that I connected with Jane McCloskey, one of McCloskey’s daughters—the very Jane who appears in One Morning in Maine. She and I corresponded quite a bit by email, and that fact remains thrilling and surreal to this super fan!
BB: One of the many things I like about this book is the amount of attention and credit you give to Robert’s editor May Massee. She even gets an impressive write-up in the backmatter. Why did you make the choice to stress an editor’s influence on a classic picture book?
EBS: May Massee really was a big part of McCloskey’s life. Not only did she edit all of his books, she introduced him to the woman who became his wife, and the whole McCloskey family would later spend winters at Massee’s house. So that was part of it. But also, she was an integral part of the narrative that I created for this book. She is the person he must perform well for, the person he knows he needs to impress in order to publish this book. He had very high standards for himself, but she also had high standards, and he needed to meet them!
Lastly, May Massee was a very influential figure in the early, developing world of picture books, and it felt right to include her and do her justice. Editors are such a critical part of the creation of picture book, and I feel they don’t get mentioned enough. (Shout out to my own wonderful editor, Carolyn Yoder!)
BB: Artist Becca Stadtlander makes a series of fun choices with how she depicts Robert in the midst of all this duckling chaos. How do you feel about the illustrations and what she brought to the story?
EBS: For years I have loved Becca’s paintings. She does stunning landscapes and her interior scenes often include vintage objects and have this wonderful timeless feel—you want to step into them and curl up with a cup of tea. Her depictions of the tiny, adorable ducklings wreaking havoc in McCloskey’s studio make me smile—and I hope they’ll make kids laugh, too. I also think her juxtaposition of the fairly strait-laced, properly-dressed McCloskey (his roommate, Marc Simont, described him as a classic Midwesterner who stuck out like a sort thumb in bohemian-chic New York) with these rambunctious ducklings is hilarious.
BB: Of all the classic picture books out there, Make Way for Ducklings seems to have the most ridiculous stories to it. It has crazy theories (my favorite is that you can spot Nixon in one scene, even though that chronologically makes no sense). And there are adult aspects to the duckling story that really aren’t appropriate for kids (like the fact that he slowed the ducks down with wine and that the adult male really loved it and would frighten off the others so he could have it all). These details are in the aforementioned Wild Things. One thing we always wanted to include but couldn’t find was the Time-Life article about Robert and the ducklings that includes a photo of him covered in them as he tries to work. Was there anything that you wanted to include in this book but couldn’t for one reason or another?
EBS: The red wine story is so funny (although its morals are perhaps a little questionable by today’s more enlightened animal rights standards)! Like you, I read that a photographer from Life had taken pictures of McCloskey in his studio with the ducklings climbing on him. The story was supposed to run, but was booted by the start of the Korean War. I spent many hours trying to track down those photos, unsuccessfully. I also came across other photos of McCloskey, really wonderful ones, showing him painting in his barn studio in Maine and clamming with his daughters. I dearly wanted to publish those, but the photographer had passed away and I was not able to secure the rights. I feel badly about that because these are now basically orphaned photos. The world will never be able to see them, and they’re fantastic! But I couldn’t figure out how to get around the copyright issue. Maybe one day I will!
BB: Just speaking for yourself, why has this book endured for so many years since its original publication?
ABS: I just re-read the book now to try to get to the crux of this question. Is it the charming brown illustrations? Is it that it’s set in a real place and it’s so cool to see all these illustrations of old Boston (you can practically use it as a guidebook)? Is it the fact that there’s no syrupy moral to the story, and that there is real danger (crossing those streets! Scary bikes!)? Maybe. Or maybe it’s just that the ducklings are so darn adorable.
BB: Finally, what’s next for you?
ABS: Besides this book, I have two more nonfiction picture books coming out this year: The Gardener of Alcatraz (Charlesbridge), and How Science Saved the Eiffel Tower (Capstone). In 2024 I’ll have my first picture book biography of a woman—The Fabulous Fannie Farmer: Kitchen Scientist and America’s Cook (Calkins Creek). I’m really excited about all of these titles!
And now, step back one and all, and behold . . . the cover!
Mr. McCloskey’s Marvelous Mallards will be on shelves everywhere November 1st. Many thanks to Emma Smith for answering my questions and letting us all know about her book!
Filed under: Interviews
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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