Follow the Ducklings! Exploring the Art of Children’s Book Illustrators

This week we are inspired by the children’s book illustrations!  When masterfully done, they help nurture our children’s appreciation of literature.  After all, the early stages of reading development are very visual. It is no wonder that the art world celebrates the works of the children’s book authors and illustrators like Barbara Cooney, Beatrix Potter, Quentin Blake, Maurice Sendak, Eric Carle, Clement Hurd and Robert McCloskey to name a few. The Museum of Fine Arts in Boston is currently hosting a beautifully curated Robert McCloskey exhibit, which we visited this week. In this post, I wanted to share my guide for channelling your child’s interest in illustrations into an exploration of art and literature.

  • Pick the Subject of Your Study Strategically:  I recommend selecting illustrations based on what your child already likes and knows.  It is an added bonus if the author and/or illustrator has a connection to your town, is from your  state or has written about your state/city because that usually means your library will have more resources to help you learn their story. You might even find an exhibit at the local museum or make a day trip to visit the town where the author/illustrator lived.  There are so many possibilities! Robert McCloskey’s “Make Way for Ducklings” is the official children’s book of Massachusetts and Valentina happens to love it.  So it was an obvious choice for us, especially since the MFA was having a very timely exhibit. 
  • Visit the Library First:  Our first step was checking with our local library to see if any of the McCloskey books were available.  We originally read the library’s copy of “Make Way for Ducklings”.  I am not from the Boston area and was excited to discover this book myself as it follows a duck family’s journey from the island on the Charles River to Boston Gardens. Unfortunately, all of the books by McCloskey were checked out from our library.  While several copies were available in its network of libraries, we decided not to wait and to head to the McCloskey exhibit at the MFA.  I decided that as a special treat for Valentina, I was going to purchase the book there since she likes it so much. That being said, your local library is a tremendous resource and don’t by pass getting a library card (like I did until just two years ago!).  We used to go for story hour and music hour but for some reason I just didn’t get around to getting a library card until Valentina turned two. First, it is incredibly easy to get your library card, just bring your government ID and a piece of mail with your address (has to correspond to your state not town).  Second, don’t  let the fear of late fees keep you from checking out books. The fees are just 5cents/book/day and most libraries won’t take your money until you hit the $1 mark. Finally, make sure you create an online account with your library which allows you to search for the books you want, see if they are available (before you make the trip) and request a hold or order the book you want from the network or regional libraries. The library will notify you when the books are ready for pick, which will save you a ton of time and money! Also, as an added bonus the libraries often have free or discounted museum passes.
  • Then Head to the Museum:  Robert McCloskey’s is one of the most well known children’s authors in Boston and with the ongoing MFA exhibition, picking his work for our exploration was an obvious choice.  If you live in the Boston area, I highly recommend taking your child to see his work at the MFA including illustrations from:  “Make Way for Ducklings”, “Blueberries for Sal” and “Time of Wonder” as well as his earlier works from  “The Lentil”, “Homer Price” and “Centerburg Tales” based on his childhood and youth in Ohio. The exhibit runs through June 18th.  It goes without saying, that stopping by the Public Gardens after the exhibit to see Nancy Schon’s famous bronze statue of the mother duck (Mrs. Mallard) and her ducklings is a must! If you want to learn about another local author, I recommend seeing Ed Emberley exhibit (Drummer Hoff, One Wide River to Cross, Go Away Big Green Monster, Ed Emberley Drawing series) at the Worcester Art Museum that runs through April 9th! And last but not least, is the Dr. Suess Museum that is expected to open its doors this June in Springfield!
  • Write and Illustrate Your Own Story: I recommend making and illustrating your own book as a fun and developmental follow up activity.  This is exactly what we did.  First, I asked Valentina to come up with her own story for the book.  I didn’t put pressure on her to think long and hard. I let her imagination run wild, while making sure to ask questions to help guide her but very gently. We made a comprehensive list of all the characters in her story and looked for images online that would fit their description. We had a bear, a cat, a mouse, a fox to name a few. We made sure to print them in black and white, so that Valentina could color them in herself.  That being said, drawing the characters yourself would be even more impressive! We used colorful construction paper for our pages and as Valentina cut out and pasted, I wrote out her plot, confirming each line with the author : ) This project was fairly easy to to do and great fun for both of us. Needless to say, Valentina is very proud of her accomplishment as a very young author and has been sharing it with everyone in our family. She plans to bring it for show at tell at her school!
  • Extend Your Exploration:  You never know where you are going to end up when you dig deeper into your research.  We learned that McCloskey was one of the few American children’s author’s translated into Russian during the Soviet Union years.  Specifically, “Homer Price” was well received by the Russian readers. In addition,  there is a matching statue of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings at the Novodevichy Park in Moscow that was given as a gift to Raisa Gorbacheva for the Russian children by Barbara Bush in 1991.  I was surprised to learn this unexpected connection between my childhood home and my current home.  So I took this opportunity to show Valentina more of Moscow architecture (as seen on the background of the duckling statue) in the library books and online. This is just an example of how you can continue exploring art and culture beyond your original agenda.

This weekend we are switching from visual to audial and heading to the Symphony Hall to see Boston Youth Symphony Orchestra.  Join us and support  young musicians, while inspiring your own all at the same time!

Anna and Valentina