Bernard Waber: A Wealth of Books, by Becky Rodia
The creator of Lyle, Lyle Crocodile regards books as treasures to be remembered and cherished
Bernard Waber would like you to know that he doesn't just do crocodiles.
Make no mistake, Bernie loves crocodiles — they've always been one of his favorite animals to draw, and his home on Long Island is filled with crocodile memorabilia from fans of Bernie's most famous creation, Lyle the Crocodile — but his 40-year career in children's books has encompassed far more than crocodiles. Bears, mice, anteaters, hippos, rhinos and lions have made appearances in Bernie's books, as have a few humans.
"I love anthropomorphic characters; especially the families," Bernie told us. "They seem sweeter and more innocent than human characters."
Kids with courage. Perhaps that's why he chose to use the "less-innocent" human characters for Courage (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), a simple yet moving picture book depicting different situations that require courage: "Courage is tasting the vegetable before making a face," "Courage is being the first to make up after an argument," "Courage is starting over." None of these things are easy to do — at any age.
Many people view Courage as a book that can help children cope with the events that took place September 11, 2001 – in fact, the book was released shortly after the first anniversary of the attacks. Though the book was released at a time that seemed perfect for talking to kids about how to be brave, Bernie told us that much of Courage was written long before September 11th.
Aside from his famous crocodile, Lyle, Bernard Waber's books have also featured lions (above title image) and humans.
"I've always thought about courage," he said. "Everybody has to be courageous at one point or another in life, and I think children have to be especially courageous because they endure more without having the experience for dealing with the things they endure.
"I think of a kid who shows up for school every day, knowing there's a bully waiting in the school yard for him or her, or maybe a kid who has fallen behind but who still shows up every day and tries his or her best. Or maybe the breadwinner in a child's family has just lost his or her job."
Little things mean a lot. "All of these things have an impact on children," Bernie said. "But even relatively minor things like the challenge of learning to tie shoes or riding a bicycle without training wheels require children to have courage."
When Bernie visits schools, often he finds that the students have written their own versions of Courage. He recalled that one little girl wrote, "Courage is having your ears pierced," a sentiment to which Bernie could relate: "I was with my granddaughter when she had her ears pierced. I kind of ambled away; I couldn't tolerate the brutality of it!" he laughed.
A job well done. A school visit from Bernie Waber usually includes some discussion about his "job."
"I tell the children drawing and writing is my job," he said. "Most children say they'd like to have my job too, because they like to draw."
Completing a picture book requires much more than drawing the pictures, of course. In fact, Bernie often must put off creating the pictures for a book if he's busy traveling, visiting schools — or writing.
In an illustration from Courage (Houghton Mifflin, 2002), a little boy takes a courageous plunge.
"I never took any writing classes," he admitted, "so everything I've learned about writing has been auto-didactic. I've always been a perfectionist about submitting finished work for publication, though, and in the days of typewriters I'd retype an entire manuscript if I made a single typo. That's how I discovered the beauty of the subconscious and how much fun rewriting can be. In retyping the words, new ideas bubbled up."
Without a doubt, Bernie's "retype" method is a tool many writers can use, even in the age of the word processor.
The greatest gift. Long before books were his "job," Bernie regarded them as things to be treasured. He grew up as the youngest of four children in an impoverished family. Bernie's siblings were much older than he was, and functioned as additional parents for him.
"They were all interested in rearing me," Bernie recalled. "I remember we lived in these cold, drafty houses and my brother who was next in age to me — about 10 years older — brought home two books for me. Since our house was so cold, we both got into bed and under the covers and he read to me. Those were the first books I owned. They were a gift, and they were mine, so I valued them."
Bernie credits his family for much of what he has achieved. "My whole family was artistic," he told us. "Whatever I do is through their nurturing. My parents and siblings loved books and music, art and conversation. We were rich in that respect."
Have books, will travel. Bernie has passed on that wealth to his own three children, who are now adults with graphic arts careers of their own. When his children were young, Bernie worked in the art department of Life magazine and wrote his books at night and on weekends.
"Even on vacations, I wrote books," Bernie laughed. "To me, doing a book is like going on vacation. That's how much I enjoy it."
That's good news for readers who love taking their own vacations to the messy room of Arthur the Anteater, to a sleepover with Ira and his teddy bear or to the heart-pounding edge of a diving board. And, of course, many readers will still be regulars at the house on East 88th Street where a crocodile reclines in the bathtub – even though we now know Bernard Waber does a lot more than just crocodiles.
Becky Rodia, senior editor Teaching K-8 magazine.