The one time I went to Maine, with my mom, it was July. But on the two-page wordless spread that both begins and ends Blueberries for Sal, the wall calendar tells us it is August. Mom loved this picture book by Robert McCloskey, and she made sure I did too.
It was an easy sell. A mother and her daughter go out to pick blueberries before winter, while a mother bear and her cub go out to eat blueberries before winter. The pairs get mixed up — Mother with Little Bear, and Mother Bear with Little Sal — but all ends well. Each of our four characters gets more than enough blueberries, either in their tummies or in their pail. Winter will be sweet.
But despite the story’s happy ending (which is something my mother valued very much), there’s a lot about this story that does not match the vision I have of what she liked.
Wouldn’t my mom want Little Sal to be wearing a dress rather than overalls that keep sliding off the shoulder? Wouldn’t she prefer for Little Sal to have a more girlish ‘do? Wouldn’t she worry about presenting bears in too friendly a light? Wouldn’t she fret that the book sends a bad message, that it’s okay for a child to get lost and fritter away a day with only three lousy berries to show for it?
The words I remembered best from this story were the three that describe the sound the blueberries make when they plop into Little Sal’s pail: “kuplink, kuplank, kuplunk!” When she drops a blueberry in her mother’s pail, it does not make that sound because there are already so many blueberries. The sound later startles Mother Bear because her child does not make a noise like kuplunk!
The other part I remembered was what happens when Little Bear eats from Mother’s blueberry pail: “Of course, he only wanted to taste a few of what was inside, but there were so many and they were so close together, that he tasted a Tremendous Mouthful by mistake.” McCloskey must like the phrase because he writes it twice: “Little Bear tasted another Tremendous Mouthful, and almost spilled the entire pail of blueberries!”
Robert McCloskey, who wrote and illustrated Blueberries for Sal, won the Caldecott Medal for it in 1949. He had previously won a Caldecott in 1942 for Make Way for Ducklings. Blueberries for Sal is consistently ranked among the top American picture books. For a few years it went out of print because of a dispute with McCloskey’s estate, and librarians were gasping, much like the mother in the story: “Where, oh where, is my [blueberry book]?!” When the book came back in print, bluer ink was used to more faithfully represent the blue used in the original pen-and-ink drawings. The illustrations are a master class in Less Is More.
But these four characters, they’re like the cast of Seinfeld, famous for the show’s credo, “No hugging, no learning.” Little Sal doesn’t learn her lesson. Presumably, Little Bear doesn’t either. Do the two mothers promise to be more careful, to not let such a potentially dangerous mix-up happen again? Nope. The bears go home “down one side of Blueberry Hill” and the humans go “down the other side of Blueberry Hill.” There’s no hugging, no learning, only eating and picking and (in the last picture) canning.
All of which is fine and dandy with me. But was my mother happy with such ambiguity? I suppose so.
The first illustration shows Mother’s car parked on Blueberry Hill, near a grove of pine trees, above a classic Maine townscape. Little Sal and Mother look right at us, the readers. Little Sal seems proud. She is going with her mother to do important work — just look at the pail she so confidently swings!
Mother looks at us too, one hand holding her pail, the other holding Little Sal’s hand. Her sideways glance and slight smile communicate understanding far beyond what she’s willing to say on the page. There is more to her than we will ever know.
She looks so young.
1. Pick a book from your childhood and reread it. What surprises you?
2. What books did your parent or guardian love? What does it tell you about them?
3. Read a Caldecott-winner and try to figure out why the illustrations were medal-worthy.
The next Children’s Book Club will meet Friday, August 9. We will read Oh My Oh My Oh Dinosaurs! by Sandra Boynton. (Available in board book form, for that special toddler in your life.)
Browse more Children’s Book Club
“Megan Willome has captured the essence of crow in this delightful children’s collection. Not only do the poems introduce the reader to the unusual habits and nature of this bird, but also different forms of poetry as well.”
—Michelle Ortega, poet and children’s speech pathologist