In the course of his short literary life, my 3-year-old has flirted with many favorite books. Every month or so, a new theme creeps its way into our nighttime story routine. There was the “Yo Gabba Gabba!” phase, the “Dragons Love Tacos” phase, and the (mercifully short) Elmo phase. But one book never goes out of style: “Make Way for Ducklings.” We have several copies at home — many of them baby shower gifts. It’s one of the few pristine hardcovers on his bookshelf. Its thick pages and detailed illustrations seem to suggest that this is something different, a tale for special story times.
On Nov. 17, Skinner Inc. will auction off a rare signed first edition of Robert McCloskey’s 1941 classic. Opening bids are expected at $7,000. There’s the aesthetic beauty of the book, of course, that makes it so prized: McCloskey’s charcoal illustrations of Boston landmarks earned him the Caldecott Medal in 1942.
And there’s the cultural significance: The story has come to symbolize the city itself. His ducklings were immortalized in bronze statues by Nancy Schön in 1987 to commemorate the 150th anniversary of the Public Garden.
More priceless — and timeless — is the story.
The book follows a pair of mallards searching for a home in Boston. The couple swoops over the city, looking for the safest place to raise a family. They try the woods, but it’s too wild. They try Beacon Hill, but no luck there. They consider the Public Garden, and it seems lovely, until a bicycle screeches past. Finally, they settle for a bit on the banks of the Charles River, befriending a jovial policeman who sneaks them peanuts. Then Mr. Mallard, by now a new father, bravely treks to the Public Garden to see how things have changed. Ultimately Mrs. Mallard and her tribe of eight little ducklings follow — but not before proudly trotting through Beacon Hill, nearly causing car crashes and drawing a few curious stares. The happy family ultimately settles on an island in the lagoon, nestled among swan boats, bikes, scooters, and other urban enchantments.
The story of the ducklings searching for a spot to build their very own nest is the story of all of us, in a way, trying to forge our own path. When I read the story to my son, I can’t help but think about my own family. (And not just because we’ve had little luck finding reasonable accommodations in Louisburg Square.) In charcoal, McCloskey captured the journey of so many young families: Who hasn’t tried to secure a place for themselves amid the chaos of a new town? Who hasn’t sought out allies — whether it’s a nice neighbor or a kindly, peanut-sneaking police officer — in unfamiliar territory?
In the end, we’re all searching for our own safe little island. “Make Way for Ducklings” gives us hope that our nest is out there.