Robert McCloskey: The Art of Wonder Exhibit

Robert McCloskey: The Art of Wonder,” currently on display at the Curtis Memorial Library in Brunswick, Maine, through October 15, 2023, makes for a delightful daytrip from the Boston area. This past weekend, I attended one of the exhibit events, a reading of Blueberries for Sal by Sally McCloskey herself. I was grateful that Development and Marketing Manager Joyce Fehl offered to set aside some seats for me; half an hour before the event, there was already a line around the block. Inside, the room filled up quickly, but there was ample space in the front at the foot of Sal’s chair covered with bright carpet squares reserved for kids.

Sal treated the hour like regular storytime, albeit with incredible interjections about the real-life inspiration for her father’s books about Maine. Images of each page were projected behind her as she read, starting with Time of Wonder. There was the usual gentle murmur of storytime, and a perfectly timed cry of “oh no!” when the story’s hurricane hit. But Sal had everyone enraptured from the start — even the littlest listeners fell silent when Sal read the wave’s “SH-h-h-h...SH-h-h-h...SH-h-h-h” after the storm. Sal got teary-eyed at the end of the book (and so did I) when she shared that this was what she and her sister, Jane, read to their father as he passed away.

After this emotional start, Sal read the headliner, Blueberries for Sal, and One Morning in Maine. Sal brought the pages to life in a way that, of course, only she could. And she delivered McCloskey’s signature onomatopoeia (“kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!”) with gusto, including an impressive crow call in Blueberries for Sal. She concluded (yes, she read four books!) with Burt Dow, Deep-Water Man. The book, new to me, is a surreal (and hilarious) take on a Mainer’s whale of a tale with technicolor illustrations. After, Sal fielded questions from children audience members, including many about the reality of the stories. She assured us that while the actual stories of the books were made up, Burt Dow and McCloskey’s other characters were all real people, they were “a part of [their] lives.” And I reflected on how, even before seeing the real-life Sal, she and her sister had been a real part of my parents’ lives, and my life, and now, happily, part of my nieces’ and nephews’ lives.

Sal’s reading was a special experience, but the rest of the exhibit is just as gripping. The library has several pieces on loan from the May Massee Collection at Emporia State University, including original sketches and artwork from McCloskey’s five most famous picture books, arranged around the children’s section and stacks on the first and second floors of the building. Between displays, large, hand-painted scenes from Blueberries for Sal adorn the walls. Other items on view include a translated edition of Make Way for Ducklings and a LEGO replica of Burt Dow in his boat, the Tidely-Idely. This is also the last time that the fragile sketches from Make Way for Ducklings, perhaps McCloskey’s best-known work (at least in our neck of the woods), will be displayed publicly. (And, don’t worry, we sent Sal home with a copy of the 2014 Horn Book that featured one of her father’s illustrations.)

Monica de los Reyes

Monica de los Reyes is editorial assistant for The Horn Book, Inc.

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