Columns > Published on September 13th, 2019

Be Childish Because It’s Robert McCloskey’s Birthday

Hook them while they’re young!

That’s the unofficial motto of children’s literature and should be sung by every author. Young readers grow up to be adult book lovers. Sure, some bibliophiles are late bloomers, but keeping in touch with my inner child prevents this writer from turning into the crusty, hateful stereotypes that are not only outdated, but inaccurate.

Ask anyone what their favorite children’s book is. It’s the best conversation starter. We remember the simple stories that first touched our lives. They are one of the main ingredients of who we become as we age.

Some of the most beautiful and lively tales I grew up with were crafted by Robert McCloskey. I was originally drawn to him because he may actually be a distant relative, but his style tattooed itself on my brain. His books, Make Way for Duckings and Blueberries for Sal still influence me today.

We remember the simple stories that first touched our lives. They are one of the main ingredients of who we become as we age.

It doesn’t matter they were made for children. Even as a grownup I find solid literary qualities that help me with my adult work. To be fair, I write for both children and grownups, but remembering childishness draws more emotion, humor, and care out of a word-addict. Nearly every classic children’s book has a solid story line, developed characters, a colorful world, some mystery, and some action. These are all elements necessary to craft great works of literature.

I will never forget sitting in class and staring up at my teacher as she sat in her rocking chair and read about a family of ducks. As an animal lover I was hooked. As a kid who loved new ideas, I scooted forward when the ducklings followed their mother into a busy city. The anticipation was unbearable.

Would they get hurt?

Would they all make it safely through?

How would the people react?

The questions kept coming.

Questions are what build a connection between stories and readers. If an author reveals too much too soon the story is predictable and boring. Don't reveal soon enough and tension withers as attention spans float away. It’s a perfect lesson for budding authors. Adult readers may not ask themselves direct questions as they read, but they should ponder where everything is leading, how the character will be affected, and what it all means.

When I read Blueberries for Sal to my children, they listen wide-eyed. The first time I read it to my eldest she kept laughing at the little girl in the story and asking what she would do next. We had fun enjoying the journey of reading each page. The illustrations were so lifelike and adorable they added an extra touch. I remembered them from my childhood and relived the wonder when my kids took an extra moment to study them. 

In children’s literature illustrations don’t have to take over the story. They are complimentary, like icing on a cake (or the cake of a cake, for people like me who think icing is just too extra). In recent years an alarming number of children’s books without words have been released. Some have even won the prestigious Newbery Award. Trends like this remind me of the importance of remembering the greats and sharing their work.

Robert McCloskey wrote and illustrated a total of nine picture books throughout his career. Two won the Caldecott medal. His penciled images display a talented hand for nature drawing. They look as if they could be published in a conservationist magazine. Anyone who appreciates the great outdoors will see the value in not just his words, but his artwork.

McCloskey was born on September 14th, 1914. So much has changed since that time.

His stories were crafted to entertain and educate children from a different society─before the armistice, WWII, the Civil Rights Movement, 9/11, and the issues of today─yet they still possess enough charm to draw in young readers. The tales are nowhere near modern. They follow outdated situations like blueberry picking to survive the winter. Despite this, the main themes and beautiful artwork capture storytelling at its best.

His work is a reminder of our common bonds and our connection with nature. It remains to show us where we’ve been and that no matter where we go, there are some special things that stay the same.

Happy birthday, Robert McCloskey.

About the author

Jessica Marie Baumgartner is the author of The Golden Rule, The Embracing Entropy Series, My Family Is Different and more. Her writing has won 3 Bards and Sages Magazine Awards, 2 New Apple Awards, 2 Missouri Writer’s Guild Awards, and a Summer Indie Book Award. She is a current member of the Missouri Writer’s Guild, SCBWI, and works mostly with children’s stories and non-fiction, but sometimes fantasy and horror. As a dyslexic Wiccan, Jess loves all types of people, but also writes about Pagan issues and the fun of a brain that works differently.

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