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A master who made it look easy

Countless baby boomers can still name all the ducks in Robert McCloskey's best-known book, Make Way for Ducklings. The whimsical tale of a pair of mallards and their numerous offspring finding a home in the Boston Public Garden has sold more than 2-million copies. On Thursday, the 62-year-old book's sales rank on was 41.

McCloskey wrote and illustrated eight books for children, the first published in 1941, the last in 1958. When he died Monday at 88, on Deer Isle, Maine, all eight of them were still in print, an extraordinary achievement in the disposable world of children's books. He was the first person to win two Caldecott Medals, awarded each year to the artist of the most distinguished picture book for children.

Whether he was writing about ducks, about his wife and daughters in Blueberries for Sal and several other books set on Maine islands, or about a resourceful boy with a pet skunk in Homer Price and Centerburg Tales, McCloskey created in words and especially in pictures a gentle and charming (and vanished) world.

His folks live in small towns where neighbors watch out for other people's kids or on islands where, if you're having clam chowder for lunch, you and your dad dig the clams yourselves.

McCloskey's illustrations captured his subjects with painstaking precision. When he was writing Make Way for Ducklings, he bought four mallards and kept them in his Boston apartment so he could study and sketch them as they waddled around and swam in the bathtub.

Most of the people in his books are modeled on his family and neighbors, and his affection for them shines in the pages.

The children in McCloskey's books are not prettied-up cherubs. They're sometimes cute, sometimes goofy and always a little bit scruffy, as if they're having too much fun to sit still for the hairbrush or their mother's wet thumb.

McCloskey was a quiet virtuoso of motion, posture and gesture. His toddlers hurtle headlong or teeter on one foot, arched against the air. His animals, from dogs to ducks, are so convincing you can practically see their tails waggle.

Though he was a stickler for detail, whether it was the vegetation in a forest scene or the dish towels in a kitchen, his illustrations retain the open, airy spontaneity of sketches. The mark of a master is making it look easy.

McCloskey's death means one less source of old-fashioned sweetness. But out there in the world he leaves several million kids and former kids who just might help a duckling get across a busy street.