It was during author Angela Burke Kunkel’s years at Simmons University that she first encountered the Boston Public Garden’s famed Make Way for Ducklings sculpture.
“I don’t remember reading the book as a child, but I nannied for a toddler, and I loved taking her to the duckling sculptures in the Public Garden,” explained Kunkel, who is also known for her books “Digging for Words: José Alberto Gutiérrez and the Library He Built” and “Penguin Journey.”
“Of course, that led me back to the book,” she said, “which I enjoyed reading to my own kids years later.”
The book in question was Robert McCloskey’s Caldecott Medal-winning 1941 picture book, “Make Way for Ducklings.” The story follows Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings (memorably and alphabetically named Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack, and Quack) searching for a suitable home. Boston sculptor Nancy Schön later created the ducklings in bronze so they could live forever in the Public Garden, as they do in the book.
Kunkel’s new picture book, “Make Way: The Story of Robert McCloskey, Nancy Schön, and Some Very Famous Ducklings,” debuted earlier this month and is a dual biography of the two artists whose lives intertwined in an extraordinary way. Illustrated by Claire Keane, the book shows McCloskey and Schön’s journeys as they worked closely and respectfully on the iconic duckling sculptures that have delighted children (and adults) since they took up residence in Boston with great fanfare in 1987. The Globe spoke to Kunkel from her home in Vermont, where she lives with her family, a dog, a guinea pig, and a bearded dragon.
Why did you start the book initially, with McCloskey and Schön’s early years and development as artists?
In my research, I was impressed with the determination and meticulous processes that both artists showed in their artistic endeavors, starting when they were children. One of the reasons I love picture book biographies for kids is that they love to learn about how famous people begin, and then continue on their creative paths. The lives of real people can be inspirational to kids and affect their viewpoint on their abilities throughout their lives.
McCloskey died in 2003, but could you connect with Schön as you were writing “Make Way”?
I wrote the book during the pandemic so we didn’t get together in person, but I had several wonderful conversations with her. As I write in the book, Schön learned her strong work ethic working in her father’s Newton greenhouse as a child. She was always mechanically minded, interested in putting things together or taking them apart, and working with her hands. She drew a parallel between her work in her father’s greenhouse and her interest in sculpture.
Schön believes that childhood experiences can carry over and shape the rest of children’s lives. She emphasized that life as an artist requires persistence and hard work in the face of inevitable adversity and rejection. Schön is also passionate about the importance of public art.
“Make Way for Ducklings” and the sculptures of the ducklings are very well known, but their creators somewhat less so. Did you learn anything surprising about McCloskey and Schön when you did your research for this parallel biography?
McCloskey and Schön developed a deep and lasting friendship working together on the ducklings sculptures. She went on to create sculptures based on several of his other books, including the bear from “Blueberries for Sal” and the boy and the dog from “Lentil.”
How did you connect with Claire Keane, the book’s illustrator?
I suggested her to my editor because I had seen and admired her previous work, including the illustrations for “Love Is,” a picture book by Diane Adams that happens to include illustrations of ducks. I love her fun and beautifully detailed artwork for “Make Way.” It represents the essence of McCloskey and brings a wonderful visual sense to my words.
Is it true that you live on a lake filled with mallard ducks?
I live near Lake Champlain, where it intersects with Otter Creek, so my life is full of Canadian geese, great blue herons, and, yes, plenty of mallards.
Interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
Betsy Groban can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.