Make Way for Ducklings, written and illustrated by Robert McCloskey, was the recipient of the 1942 Caldecott Medal, and is still praised to this day for its detailed charcoal illustrations, effective pacing, and deviation from standard gender norms at the time of publication. Despite being published nearly 80 years ago, McCloskey’s merry tale has withstood the test of time, making this book a fitting story for Winner Wednesday.
Make Way for Ducklings follows Mr. and Mrs. Mallard as they scour the greater Boston area looking for a suitable home to raise their duckling flock. After a series of trials and errors in finding the perfect place to live, the Mallards settle on a quiet and safe island situated in the middle of the Charles River in downtown Boston.
Shortly after the ducklings hatch, Mr. Mallard decides to set off on a trip down river to explore the surrounding area. Mrs. Mallard agrees to meet Mr. Mallard in the pond in Boston’s Public Garden at the end of the week, and in the meantime, she teaches her ducklings to swim, dive, walk in a line, and avoid the perils of the bustling urban metropolis in which they call home. At the week’s end, Mrs. Mallard, with her line of eight ducklings in tow, leave the comfort of their quaint island home and fearlessly begin their trek through downtown Boston, heading towards Public Garden.
With the help of the city’s policemen stopping traffic, Mrs. Mallard marches her flock of ducklings across the city, much to the amazement and delight of the Boston residents, all the way to Public Garden. The Mallard family is reunited with Mr. Mallard, who they find waiting on the island in the pond, just as he had promised.
One of the most captivating features of this book is the attention to detail in McCloskey’s charcoal illustrations. Not only does McCloskey depict the Mallards in a realistic way, but he also captures Boston’s architecture and the city’s residents in a way that truly captures the essence of the time; we see examples of 1940s automobiles and clothing throughout. The illustrations today feel like a time hop back to a different world, showing the readers the vibrant city of Boston in an antiquated light. The book’s black and white color scheme reinforces the story’s historical setting.
The pacing used in Make Way for Ducklings is also noteworthy. McCloskey’s use of single sentences per page leave readers turning to the next page quickly, which reinforces the idea of movement throughout this book. We feel as though we are following along with Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings in real time as they strut down the sidewalk.
Additionally, Mrs. Mallard quickly distinguishes herself as a leader in the story, which shatters the gender stereotypes that dominated the 40s; she has the final say in deciding where the family will live, she singlehandedly raises her eight ducklings in Mr. Mallard’s absence, and she leads her line of ducklings fearlessly across the city by herself. She emerges as an example of a strong female character and a symbol of decisiveness and bravery amidst a world of metropolitan chaos.
With its setting in the 1940s, this book could be an effective tool for teachers to use to compare the past and present. Throughout the book, it is apparent in the way buildings, cars, and clothing are depicted that this is not a story set in present-day. While reading this story, teachers could have students observe the illustrations and notice similarities and differences between the way things look in the book, and the way things look now. Teachers could ask students to infer, based on the illustrations, when they think this book was written, and how they can tell. Once established that this book was written decades ago, teachers could even have students create their own illustrations, set in present-day, to go along with the story’s timeless words.
This story is an enduring classic that delights readers with its simple premise, and captivates the audience with intricate illustrations. The readers follow Mr. and Mrs. Mallard’s journey as they try to find the perfect community to raise their family, but Make Way for Ducklings serves as a reminder that our communities are what we make of them, and sometimes our communities can surprise us in the very best of ways.