Bernard Waber is an American author/illustrator born in 1924 in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania into an immigrant family. He was the youngest by ten years of four children. His childhood was one rich in family, art, music, conversation and entertainment. At the same time it was also one of near poverty as his father struggled from one unsuccessful business venture to another, steps ahead of creditors. Frequent moves, unheated houses, and hand me downs were integral parts of his childhood. Yet for all that, there is a hope, optimism and confidence in the rightness of life and of the possibility that all will turn out right in all Waber's books.
Despite the difficult circumstances of his childhood, there were some aspects that eventually had a positive outcome. As Waber wrote in his biographical entry in The Third Book of Junior Authors
"The prospect of moving loomed continually during the depression years as one or another of our family's business ventures folded. Each time a move was considered, I sought assurance from my parents that the new neighborhood would be bountiful with prospective playmates, and that a public library and motion picture theater would exist within easy roller-skating distance. Like food and drink, I considered the library and movies life-giving staples, and could not conceive of survival without them. The library, with its great store of unrequired reading, was a banquet to which I brought a ravenous appetite. And the movies; western, thriller, adventure-story - it never mattered - I was a willing transportee to whatever cinematic never-never-land Saturday's marquee hailed."
And in Contemporary Authors Online he is quoted:
"When I was about eight years of age," he once recalled, "I had the astonishing good fortune to obtain after-school employment in a neighborhood movie theater. It was my job to raise seats and pick up discarded candy wrappers after daily matinee performances. Admission to a movie theater free of charge was living and breathing my own fantasy. It was also my first experience doing work I enjoyed." "Each day," he continued, "I raced from school to theater . . . and caught the final ten or fifteen minutes of . . . a daily new feature film. Following the performance, having seen only the ending, I would try and reconstruct what I imagined to be the middle and beginning. It occurs to me that this was my earliest attempt at plotting, which may or may not account for the frequency with which endings to my own stories come to me before I have realized earlier developments."
Completing high school, Waber enrolled in the University of Pennsylvania, working towards a degree in finance as a pathway to respectability and financial stability. With the outbreak of World War II, however, Waber withdrew from university, signed-up and served the duration, being mustered out in 1945 as a staff sergeant.
On his return to civilian life, Waber changed his focus and enrolled in the Philadelphia College of Art and then the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, completing his studies in 1951. He moved to New York began his career in commercial art and graphic design. The following year, in 1952, he married Ethel Bernstein. In his career in graphic design from 1952 - 1988, Waber worked for Conde Nast Publications, Seventeen, Life, and People.
Raising his children in New York City, Waber found himself becoming more and more involved in reading to them and enjoying their illustrated books to such an extent that they chided him about following them around in the library. He determined to turn his hand to writing children's books, and began working evenings and weekends on top of his regular job.
His first offerings were rejected numerous times before Houghton finally accepted two submissions, the first of which, Lorenzo, was published in 1961. Waber has published nearly forty children's books since then, all of which he has written and illustrated himself.
Waber's art work is of a cartoon style. His early work was characterized with strong black lines outlining a simple palette of colors. Over the years this style has mellowed somewhat but the entire body of work is of a recognizable whole and has a distinctive feel of a certain time and era of children's illustrations. While I am not usually all that big a fan of the art fashions of the sixties or of the cartoon style of illustration, for some reason that I cannot convey well, Waber makes it work. I think the strong line work and simply conveyed graphics create an image that appeals to children while they listen to the story.
Across the nearly forty books he has written, there are three groups of work that stand out. Waber's second book was the classic House on East 88th Street. This became the first of what has grown to be a series of eight books featuring one of the great creations of childhood characters - Lyle the Crocodile. The Primm family moves into their new home on East 88th Street only to discover, following the sound of splashing to the bathroom, that it is already occupied by Lyle the Crocodile. How he came to be there and his adventures with the Primm family are the basis for the series of stories all of which can be read as stand alone tales.
There is a second mini-series of two books that stand out: the Ira stories. First came Ira Sleeps Over in 1972 and then, in 1988, came Ira Says Goodbye. The genesis of these stories was Waber's real life experience with his children and their friends. As he explained to Carolyn S. Brodie in an interview in June 2003 (School Library Media Activities Monthly Vol,. 19 Issue 10 page 42):
My children loved teddy bears, and I do too. There was a lot of sleeping at friends' houses and taking along a teddy bear for comfort. The idea for Ira probably took form with the sleepover invitation my young son extended to a friend. The invitee was a tough kind of kid with total self-command, who arrived at our house toting a giant panda. I thought even tough Brad (his name) needs something comforting to see him through the night.
The final group is a set of standalone stories, linked only by the fact that children love them and that all but one have anthropomorphized animals as their protagonists: You Look Ridiculous, Said the Rhinoceros to the Hippopotamus; An Anteater Named Arthur; A Lion Named Shirley Williamson; The Mouse That Snored; Do You See a Mouse?; and Courage. Courage, working from an earlier draft of a book he had started, was Waber's response to the 9/11 attacks and, in simple fashion, outlines to children the various ways that they show courage on a day-by-day basis - starting with routine things like "Courage is going to bed without a nightlight", to a little bit more esoteric such as "Courage is tasting the vegetable before making a face", to one of my favorites "Courage is explaining the rip in your brand-new pants."
From a parent's perspective, Waber is an attractive author/illustrator because he is so attuned to the real issues of a child as witnessed by a parent. All his stories have a gentle but engaging attractiveness. The child joins in and follows along with the tale because it is well written and the characters are distinctive and irrepressible. Also the stories, told through the animal protagonist, are of exactly the sorts of trials and conundrums with which the child wrestles every day. Being teased? Ira Sleeps Over. A friend leaving? Ira Says Goodbye. Dealing with a difficult personality? Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. Dealing with jealousy? Lyle and the Birthday Party.
There is an odd coincidence in here. Last week's featured author was Russell Hoban who was also born in Philadelphia, just six months after Waber. He also interrupted his academic career to serve in the Army. He also trained as an illustrator but started writing in part based on his reading to his children. And he, and his wife Lillian Hoban, also developed a lovable anthropomorphized character, the badger Frances. While the art work is distinctively different, the Frances books, as with Lyle, are iconic of the sixties. The last interesting similarity is that the Frances books and the Lyle books (along with Waber's other books) share a similar feel - as a parent you can look to them to entertain your child, make them laugh, and also learn about the little bumps along the road of growing up.
Waber's books are almost uniformly of that group that serve as a reading bridge. They are wonderful read-to stories for four or five year olds but they are also candidates for a child's first reading books as well.
Enjoy them all but I recommend starting with The House on East 88th Street.
House on East Eighty-Eighth Street by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile by Bernard Waber
Lyle and the Birthday Party by Bernard Waber Recommended
Lovable Lyle by Bernard Waber Suggested
Ira Sleeps Over by Bernard Waber Highly Recommended
Lyle Finds His Mother by Bernard Waber Recommended
But Names Will Never Hurt Me by Bernard Waber Suggested
Funny, Funny Lyle by Bernard Waber Suggested
Ira Says Goodbye by Bernard Waber Recommended
Lyle at the Office by Bernard Waber Suggested
Do You See a Mouse? by Bernard Waber Recommended
Lion Named Shirley Williamson by Bernard Waber Suggested
Bearsie Bear and the Surprise Sleepover Party by Bernard Waber Suggested
Lyle at Christmas by Bernard Waber Suggested
The Mouse That Snored by Bernard Waber Suggested
Fast Food! Gulp! Gulp! by Bernard Waber Suggested
Courage by Bernard Waber Recommended
Evie And Margie by Bernard Waber Suggested
Bernard Waber Bibliography
Lorenzo written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1961
The House on East 88th Street written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1962
How to Go about Laying an Egg written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1963
Rich Cat, Poor Cat written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1963
Just like Abraham Lincoln written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1964
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1965
You Look Ridiculous, Said the Rhinoceros to the Hippopotamus written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1966
Lyle and the Birthday Party written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1966
Cheese written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1967
An Anteater Named Arthur written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1967
A Rose for Mr. Bloom written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1968
Lovable Lyle written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1969
A Firefly Named Torchy written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1970
Nobody Is Perfick (collection of short stories) written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1971
Ira Sleeps Over written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1972
Lyle Finds His Mother written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1974
I Was All Thumbs written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1975
But Names Will Never Hurt Me written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1976
Good-bye, Funny Dumpy-Lumpy written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1977
Mice on My Mind written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1977
The Snake: A Very Long Story written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1978
Dear Hildegarde written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1980
You're a Little Kid with a Big Heart written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1980
Bernard written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1982
Funny, Funny Lyle written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1987
Ira Says Goodbye written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1988
Lyle at the Office written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1994
Do You See a Mouse? written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1995
Gina written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1995
A Lion Named Shirley Williamson written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1996
Bearsie Bear and the Surprise Sleepover Party written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1997
Lyle at Christmas written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 1998
The Mouse That Snored written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 2000
Fast Food! Gulp! Gulp! written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 2001
Courage written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 2002
Evie & Margie written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 2003
Betty's Day Off written and illustrated by Bernard Waber 2005