On April 24, a newly restored mural that had long hung at Pequenakonck Elementary School in the North Salem Central School District in Westchester County, NY, was unveiled to the public to celebrate School Library Month, and thanks to the detective work of the school’s librarian Noel MacCarry, it was also revealed that the mural was the work of legendary children book author and illustrator Robert McCloskey.
For the last 28 years, Westchester school librarian MacCarry wondered about the provenance of the unusual unsigned painting of sea birds. Local school lore had attributed the painting to McCloskey, and MacCarry knew that the two-time Caldecott medalist for Make Way for Ducklings (1941) and Time of Wonder (1957, both Penguin) had lived in the area for a period prior to the school being built. In addition, he’d found in the library’s files a handwritten note to a former school librarian discussing the possible origins for the artwork. Realizing that the mural could possibly represent an artistic and literary treasure unique to his school and local community, MacCarry was determined to verify the painting’s artist. (Over the years, while McCloskey was still alive, MacCarry had tried to contact him in vain. McCloskey died in 2003.)
Last October, he enlisted the help of noted children’s literature historian Leonard Marcus who’d interviewed McCloskey for his 2002 book, Ways of Telling: Conversations on the Art of the Picture Book (Penguin) and featured him in A Caldecott Celebration: Six Artists and Their Paths to the Caldecott Medal (Walker, 1998).
Marcus, with the help of Nancy Schon, sculptor of the famed Make Way for Ducklings statue in Boston’s Public Garden, was able to track down the author’s daughter, Jane McCloskey, for help. Jane confirmed her family had lived in a house formerly owned by May Massee, the noted children’s book editor who founded the juvenile departments at both Doubleday and Viking. The house was in Croton Falls, NY, an area that attracted folks in children’s publishing such as Helen Ferris Tibbets, editor-in-chief of Junior Literary Guild.
Nobody knows how the mural came to be at the elementary school. According to Jane, her father had worked out a deal with a local dentist by the name of Vic Johnson to exchange dental work for a mural. Pequenakonck Elementary School was built in 1972, and one of the theories is that Johnson (or his family) may have given the McCloskey mural to the school when he closed his practice. Over the years, the mural was moved to several obscure locations around the school, but it now hangs in a hall outside the school library newly framed and encased in glass thanks to the school’s Parent Teacher Organization.
The art’s unveiling had members of the school and local community in attendance with students holding various books by McCloskey and performing a musical piece.
Watch the unveiling of the painting here:
“Robert McCloskey was a mural painter before he was a picture book artist,” said Marcus, “and it’s interesting to realize that he never abandoned that initial impulse to work large and fill walls with art for all to see.”
“I had a special place in my heart for Robert McCloskey’s art as it shaped my childhood imagination,” said MacCarry. “Along with Garth Williams and Robert Lawson, I attribute McCloskey’s illustration and storytelling to my love of children’s literature and eventual career choice to work as a librarian.”
MacCarry, himself, will be a debut author in 2015 with a biography of American folk singer and activist Pete Seeger to be published by Grossett & Dunlap.