Virtual Tour of Boston with Make Way for Ducklings

What do you get when you cross ducks with red wine? The beloved children’s classic and official picture book of Boston, Make Way for Ducklings. Yup, if it wasn’t for drunken ducks, we might never have known the classic tale of two ducks looking for the best piece of real estate in Boston. 

Robert McCloskey's classic book is available for Kindle

Robert McCloskey, the wholesome Ohioan-turned-New Englander, started the award-winning book when he lived in Connecticut and finished it when he was living in New York in the 1940s. He came back to his beloved Beantown to sketch out the scenery for the book, but it was still too cold for the ducks to be out. So, in his quest for accuracy, McCloskey purchased several ducks from a market in Greenwich, let them live in his bathtub, and tried to sketch them. Can you even imagine how dirty his place was, with all those bare duck butts running around?

Besides the frustration of having to clean up after the ducks, tissue paper in hand, McCloskey couldn’t get his feathered models to stay still long enough to sketch. No doubt that he used a glass of wine or two at night to feel a little bit better about his failed work (as we all do), and then one night finally broke down and gave the ducks some wine, too. Just to slow them down, giving us one of the most beloved children’s books in US history. And also exposing Mr. Mallard as a bit of a lush. 

Detail, Robert McCloskey, Make Way For Ducks, 1941

Wait, What's This Story About?

Ok, so the book isn’t really about drunk ducks. It’s actually about the eternal interspecies quest for the perfect piece of real estate. In Make Way for Ducklings, Mr. and Mrs. Mallard fly over Boston looking for a place to rest their weary wings and a safe spot to raise their family. And because Mrs. Mallard is clearly aware of the value of location, location, location, (especially locations where duckling will not be eaten by turtles or run over by children on bikes) the feathered pair settle on the banks of the Charles River.

Despite their sweet water view, as well as their proximity to Boston’s Hatch Shell, the outdoor concert venue of the Boston Pop’s 4th of July Spectacular, the Banks of the River Charles is not where the Mallards, with their eight children, end up. Ask any kid in Beantown where the ducklings live, and they’ll tell you the family traded up to the Public Garden, where their neighbors are swan boats, the swanky The Four Seasons Hotel and the former Ritz Carlton Hotel. As the story goes, once the children are born, Mr. Mallard leaves them and tells his young family to find him across town.  And this is the crux of the story: a mother duck leading her eight ducklings across a busy Storrow Drive, down the aristocratic streets of Beacon Hill, across the crazy Charles Street and Beacon Street intersection, and into the oasis of the Boston Public Garden.

Make Way for Ducklings Statue in the Public Garden by Nancy Schon

Boston You're My Home

The girls and I have been re-reading this book a lot. Because we can’t explore outside right now, and because we really really miss Boston. And then I realized it. It’s not the ducks’ uncanny sense of real estate that makes this story a classic tale; it’s the city itself. In fact, while Make Way was inspired by a true story of ducks crossing the street, the reason why Robert McCloskey wrote the book in the first place was because, as he told Leonard S. Marcus in Show Me a Story, he wanted to pursue the accuracy of “the feel of Boston.” And he drew the pictures thinking about the “the detail of a wrought iron fence, for instance, that a child would put his hand on or walk right by or rub a stick on the way children do.” And so the story opens with these amazing aerial scenes that make you feel like a kid again flying into a new city, as the ducks loop over the Public Garden, the State House, Louisberg Square and the Longfellow Bridge – all landmarks that McCloskey, who was working as an artist assistant at the time, was painting, and that he wanted to make larger than life.

I wanted to cover walls. I found it confining to scale down my pictures and ideas to put the inside the pages of a book. So I tried every trick I could to get as much into those pictures as possible. I paced the illustrations, and gave them a variety of viewpoints -aerial views and others - to create a sense of space and movement and a feeling of something going on.”

Robert McCloskey
in an interview with Leonard S. Marcus

The bridge in the Boston Public Garden (Shutterstock). Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings, 1941. 

Boston State House as depicted by Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings, 1941 and Google Maps, 2020.

And it’s precisely this freedom of space and movement, as well as the realism that makes Boston more of a main character than the Mallards. No one asks about Mr. and Mrs. Mallard’s backstory: why are they looking for a place to live? Where did they come from? No one wonders why Mr. Mallard suddenly leaves Mrs. Mallard and their eight children (was he looking for wine?) and makes them come find him in the city. 

None of those details matter because it’s the city that’s the main character. 80 years later, and the landmarks have barely changed. And what matters most about the story isn’t that the family of ducks walked the .3 miles to the Garden, it’s how the city reacted: the busy, fast-paced Boston stopped everything so that the most vulnerable among us could be safe. And that, folks, is Boston. And that is you, all of you, right now, in this strange and frightening time we live in.

Robert McCloskey, Make Way for Ducklings, 1941

How to Explore Boston From Home

Everyone across the world is in the same boat. We’re all staying home and teaching our kids, and trying to make it all work. And we all just want a few minutes to ourselves. So, this is what we are offering you as a way to help out.  If you’re so inclined, read the book to them (this post does contain affiliate links to help us fund the site), then hand the phone/tablet over the kids, and let them explore Boston. They can explore the city from the ducks’ point of view, and walk the path the ducklings took. And although the annual duckling parade will probably not take place this year, when you can finally go outside and safely mingle, the pond in the Commons will still be there, as well as the ducklings with their mother. And your kids will know exactly where they are and how to find them. 

For Kids

A Duck's Eye-View of Boston

Mr. and Mrs. Mallard flew over the city before landing on the Charles River. Later, Mrs. Mallard and the ducklings walked through Beacon Hill to get to the Public Garden. Click on the ducks below to learn more about the different places the ducks visited.

Can You Take the Same Path as the Ducklings?

Thanks to Google Street View, you can take a virtual walk with the ducklings down Mt. Vernon Street in Beacon Hill. To start, click on the picture below. You can choose your path by clicking on the arrows. Can you find the corner where Charles Street is? You’ll need to turn right  to get to the Public Garden. While you are walking, what do you see that is the same as in the book? What has changed?

Make Your Own Story

Animals do lots of silly things. An octopus named Inky escaped from the New Zealand aquarium. Wild Goats are taking over a village in Wales. The story of the ducks crossing the road was a real story that Robert McCloskely read about in the newspaper, and then used to make a story about Boston. First he drew all the scenes – the places – he wanted to include in the book. Those were easy because the buildings didn’t move. But the ducks sure did. McCloskey spent almost two years with ducks living in his bathtub and trying to draw them until he got his pictures just right. The Boston Public Library has lots of his sketches for the books. You can see how he kept drawing and drawing them until he got them right.

Take a place that you love – maybe it’s a city you’ve visited or the place where you live. Find a picture of it, either from your parents’ camera or from Google Maps, and sketch the background. Then, take your favorite animal, maybe it’s even your favorite stuffed animal, and draw it in your scene. What is your animal doing? What is the story you want tell about it? 

Robert McCloskey, Sketches. From the Boston Public Library.
Robert McCloskey, Sketches for Make Way for Ducklings, Boston Public Library

Explore More From Home

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