In the summer of 1980 I arrived in Washington D.C. from Palo Alto, California, as my husband took up a job at the Wilson Center, a think tank associated with the Smithsonian Institution. My neighbor at our place in Georgetown, on 29th Street, was Betsy Parker, a wonderful lady that took me under her wing and helped a newly-arrived young mother with a one-year old daughter, to find her way in the nation’s capital. Her daughters, Annie and Kaki, babysat for us, and we became close friends. Betsy’s mother wrote reviews of children’s literature for a newspaper in Connecticut, her home state, and Betsy had a veritable treasure trove of children’s books, that she generously shared with me. They included such classics as The Tale of Peter Rabbit, Blueberries for Sal, The Country Bunny and the Little Gold Shoes, The Little Engine That Could, and many other books that I, having been brought up in Spanish-speaking Puerto Rico, was not familiar with. That was the first time I came across Robert McCloskey’s Make Way for Ducklings. I was instantly taken by it, as was my daughter Amory, to whom I read it more times than I care to remember.
Forty years later I would find myself relocating to another great American city, Boston, living not too far from the Boston Public Garden, and coming across the figures of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings at the very entrance to the park. Nor did I know how popular the book, a winner of the Caldecott Award, is in Massachusetts, where it was named as the official children’s book of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts by the state legislature. 
The bronze pieces were created by sculptress Nancy Schon, and can be found in the pathway at the entrance to the park, on the corner of Beacon and Charles streets. The Boston Public Garden, declared a historic landmark in 1987, is the first public botanical garden in the United States. It has 24 acres, and dates from 1837. It was designed by architect George Meacham, and is known for its imposing imported trees, colorful plants, a pond, and several fountains and statues, many of them erected in the late 1860s.
Yet, the most charming of all the art pieces in this serene setting is that of Mrs. Mallard and her eight ducklings ( Jack, Kack, Lack, Mack, Nack, Ouack, Pack and Quack) which dates from 1987. It does exactly what public art at its best is supposed to do—engage citizens and enhance public spaces. Upon visiting the park not too long ago, I felt fortunate to find myself in such a beautiful place, and as my husband and I took our leave, a petite woman, with white hair and a winning smile, greeted us warmly. When I got back home, I tried to find out more about the creator of such special pieces. Much to my surprise, when I came across her picture, I realized that lady had been Nancy Schon.
I was intrigued by her work, and tried to contact her, though in the end the stay-at-home orders due to the pandemic made this impossible. I telephoned her and left voicemail, and also sent her an e-mail. She responded right away and kindly sent me her book, Make Way for Nancy: A Life in Public Art in PDF form. I was thrilled.
Nancy Schon did an associate degree at Boston University and her BA at the Museum of Fine Arts at Tufts University. In her long career, she has made many pieces of public art, located in different parks and plazas throughout the Boston metropolitan area. “Myrtle the Turtle”, “The Tortoise and Hare”, “Sundial”, and “Butterflies” are some of them.
So strongly have the ducklings captured the American imagination, that they have even played a role in cultural diplomacy. Another version of the sculpture of Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings can be found in Novodevichy Park in Moscow. This was a gift from the First Lady of the United States, Barbara Bush, to the First Lady of the Soviet Union, Raisa Gorbachev. The inauguration of those pieces , back in 1991, was attended by a US delegation that included author Robert McCloskey , and that coincided with the signing of the Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START) by President George H.W. Bush and President Mikhail Gorbachev.
The original idea of setting up this sculpture in the Boston Public Garden was from Suzanne de Moncheaux, a noted British urban planner who had moved to Boston via Australia. At a reception, she made a casual remark to Boston’s mayor Raymond Flynn ( 1984-1993). She told him that if she won the lottery, she would have sculptures of McCloskey’s Mrs. Mallard and her ducklings made for the Public Garden. Her work on how children experience urban environments , and Nancy Schon’s creativity and imagination to make bronze figures come alive and invite interaction, were thus magically paired .
Mrs. de Moncheaux raised US 85,000 dollars in contributions for the project, and each of the ducklings was adopted by various companies and individual donors . The Friends of the Public Garden and City Hall gave the go-ahead. Yet, the most important authorization needed was that of Robert McCloskey, the author of the book. A friend of Nancy Schon was a neighbor of McCloskey’s in Maine, and she offered to help. Schon knew that she would have to prove that she could carve the ducklings, in an original, yet faithful version of the cute little birds and her mother.
McCloskey and his wife came to Boston to visit Schon and check the maquette of the work she was doing. She used plasticine for the prototypes. McCloskey’s initial reaction was to say that they were perhaps a bit too large. Yet, when they took them outside, where three children with their mothers were passing by, and they immediately wanted to play with the figures-in-the-making, McCloskey changed his mind. A few days later, he sent Schon his written permission to proceed.
McCloskey had donated his original drawings to the Print Department of the Boston Public Library. Schon studied them, researched the bird’s features and the skeletal and muscular features thoroughly. She also researched the movements, habits and living conditions of ducks. This provided the basis for her work, and fuel for her remarkable ability to create figures that children can relate to.
What makes Schon’s figures special is that they invite interaction. Children, and even some adults, can sit on them, caress them, play with them and pretend they are feeding them. What these exquisitely carved pieces of bronze do is trigger the innermost feelings of passersby, especially of children. Their location, on the ground, in a pathway at the entrance of the park ( as opposed to in some place in the middle of it, or on an elevated pedestal) is also well-suited for these purposes.Photo by Camilla Paulsson Nielsen
Good public art changes and enlivens the space that surrounds it. And if children are attracted to it, so much the better. But public art also has the uncanny ability to convey messages. Not long ago, a Boston University student, in an expression of what is known as conceptual art, placed cages around the ducks, after covering them with foil blankets. This was done to bring attention to the crisis on the Southern border—with immigrants being put in cages, and children separated from their parents, and covered with foil blankets. The student referred to the ducks as “Boston’s quintessential immigrant family. They move here for a better life”. Schon, upon hearing of this, thought it was brilliant. Neighbors around the Public Garden dress up the ducks with hats, sport t-shirts (especially from Red Sox fans), winter woolen caps, and, most recently, at the start of the current pandemic, with face masks.
Another sculpture, called “The Joy of Children”, of an empty sled and a dog, was carved by Schon as a tribute to Sarah Pryor, a nine-year old girl who mysteriously disappeared in Wayland , Massachusetts in 1985. She went out for a walk with her dog on 9 October 1985 and was never seen again. Many years later, in 1998, a skull fragment was discovered in a wood four miles from her home, and DNA testing confirmed it was Sarah’s. Her mother, Barbara Pryor, commissioned Schon to do a piece in her memory. She also told her how much Sarah loved to go sledding with her dog. Schon remembered President John F. Kennedy’s funeral procession in Washington DC, with a rider-less horse, and came up with the idea for a sled and a dog, a work now located in the Hannah Williams Park in Wayland.
Why do the figures of “Make Way for Ducklings” in the Boston Public Garden bring so much pleasure to adults and children alike?
Schon’s ability to harness cuteness, warmth and meaning to elicit a response from the public, lies at the heart of her work’s success. The fact that so many visitors to the park have read the book, by now a classic in children’s literature, helps. But in the end, it is the figures themselves, so well portrayed that they evoke strong feelings, that make all the difference.
For that to occur, works of public art benefit from being associated with our psyche and our history. The Swan Boats by Robert Paget (1877), a perennial favorite of visitors to the Boston Public Garden keen to take a ride on the pond, and feed peanuts to the ducks, are also part of the history of Boston, and are to be found in McCloskey’s book.
In the end, the success of public art depends as much on the artist’s command of the subject of her work, her technique, her creativity and imagination, as it does on her understanding of the mind of the public it is intended for. In that, Nancy Schon is a master.
Driscoll, Anne. “Making Way for Ducklings in Bronze”, The New York Times, 6 March 1988.
McCloskey, Robert. Make Way for Ducklings. New York : Viking Press, 1941.
O’Connor, Thomas H. Boston A to Z. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2001.
Schon, Nancy. Make Way for Nancy : A Life in Public Art. Boston , David Godine, 2017.
Schaffer, Bob, “Make Way for Diplomacy : How Ducklings Helped Ease US-Soviet Tensions”, WBURS newscast, 31 March 2017.
 The General Laws of Massachusetts, Part 1, Title 1, Chapter 2, Section 49.
 Thomas H. O’Connor, Boston A to Z. Cambridge : Harvard University Press, 2001, p.211.
 Bob Shaffer, “Make Way for Diplomacy : How Boston’s Ducklings Helped Ease US-Soviet Tensions”, UBURS newscast, 31 March 2017.
 Anne Driscoll, “Making Way for Ducklings in Bronze”, The New York Times, 6 March 1988, p. 62
 Nancy Schon, Make Way for Ducklings : A Life in Public Art. Boston : David R. Godine Publisher, 2017, p. 5.
 Ibid, p.5.
 Ibid, p. 37.
 “Cages placed around ‘Make Way for Ducklings’ statue in Boston Public Garden to protest detention centers”, WCVB5, Boston, 2 August 2019.
 Ibid, p. 56.