Robert McCloskey's Classic Seacoast Stories

Eliza Clark
May 17, 2018

We all have our favorite seaside or lakeside or poolside spots. And we all have children's book authors whom we hold especially dear. When the two come together, it's the perfect recipe for bedtime reading at the end of a long summer's day. Robert McCloskey may be best known for his masterful Make Way for Ducklings. And he may have started his storybook career with an ode to a small town in the midwest much like his own hometown (Lentil). But his heart and four of his best-loved stories were set in Maine. The first three of these tales chronicle his own family's life on a Maine island, while the last takes up the fantastical story of a local character. So coastal and delightful are these books that no matter how far from the ocean you are when you read them, they still give off a whiff of sea air, and, most surely, of summer.

Blueberries for Sal

Sal is a bit scruffy. Her hair hasn't seen a brush for a few days. Her overall straps keep slipping down. But has a more endearing girl ever toddled across a blueberry field? We think not. Under her author/illustrator father's adoring yet unsparing gaze, Sal tags along with her mother on a picking expedition, but is too busy gobbling berries to keep up. When she and a blueberry-munching bear cub get their mothers mixed up, a gentle comedy of errors ensues. With its gorgeous blue-black illustrations of the Maine hills and wildlife (the precise color of blueberry juice, you'll notice), this book remains an enchanting tale of summer and its pleasures.

One Morning in Maine

Little Sal returns to us in this story, but oh, what happened? She's not so little anymore. We meet her again on the day she loses her first tooth. In case the sight of Sal as a big girl sends you into a fit of anticipatory mourning for your own little one's toddlerhood, she's got a little sister now named Jane who is just as scruffy and scrumptious as the Sal of yore. And this older, big girl Sal remains a charmer. She still talks to the Maine wildlife, showing off her loose tooth to a fish hawk, loon, and seal. And she still has a healthy appetite for sweet things (but in time-honored kid fashion, she's moved on from blueberries to chocolate ice cream sound familiar?). We get to meet Dad here too, McCloskey himself, digging for clams and wrestling with a broken outboard motor. The theme here is growing up, and the losses and rewards that come with it, explored in a multitude of small motifs: that loose (and then lost) tooth, a seagull's feather, a baby clam, a new spark plug, and ice cream cones all add up to one of the most delightful books we know.

Time of Wonder

McCloskey's first book in color is the third and last of the series chronicling his family's Maine summers. Sal and Jane are big kids now, exploring the woods together, jumping off ledges into the sea, and handling a small sailboat all by themselves (Sal at the tiller, Jane as first mate). But in a departure from the tidy-storytelling of McCloskey's other books, here we are taken on a pictorial and poetic tour of an island summer from the children's point of view, from spring rains to starry nights, to hurricane season and the start of school once more. It's a beautiful volume, rightfully awarded the Caldecott Medal of 1957, although one your child may enjoy more fully if she is already hooked on Sal and Jane's adventures. More meditation than narrative, full of nostalgia, the book celebrates not just our summer rituals (whatever they may be), but also the pleasure of watching our children discover their world: a time of wonder, indeed.

Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man: A Tale of the Sea in the Classic Tradition

This may be one of McCloskey's lesser-known titles, but it's an absolute gem of which we (and our Savvy kids) are enormously fond. If One Morning in Maine is about growing up, this story's theme is cheerful aging, and the patching up of our weaker spots. The hero is a retired fisherman turned housepainter whose zest for the sea remains undiminished by the leaky condition of his multicolored boat. Burt goes out deep-sea fishing one day, and in the ensuing adventure, McCloskey lets loose his sense of humor and the absurdist tendencies of his imagination. In what other book, we ask, will you find an old Maine fisherman doing a Jackson Pollack impersonation inside the belly of a whale? Or tenderly bandaging the tip of the tail of said whale (and the tails of a dozen or so of that's whale's relatives)? For any young sea-lovers, budding painters, or boo-boo and band-aid-obsessed children in your midst, this is fantastic yarn.

From the Parents

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