Bernard Waber died on Thursday, May 16th at the age of 91. The author of over 40 children’s books, he is probably best-known for series of books about Lyle the crocodile that began with The House on East 88th Street. In a brief essay he wrote about his career, Waber remembered that
My own early efforts at drawing were mostly confined to the laborious copying of
photographs of film stars and other celebrities. I received respectable grades in art classes
during my school years but doubt I thought it seriously indicated a career direction.
Perhaps art seemed too frivolous for one raised during the Depression. Besides, I grew up
a rather earnest young man and chose instead to major in finance at the University of
Pennsylvania. After just one year of schooling, World War II interrupted those rather
high-minded plans. Perhaps it was moving about, meeting people of various backgrounds
and experience—I don’t recall a precise moment—but somehow during those army days
my interest shifted to drawing and painting.
From that early, almost accidental decision to draw and paint, Waber eventually crafted one of the most beloved children’s characters of the 20th century.
This is the house.
The house on
East 88th Street.
It is empty now,
but it won’t be
Of course The House on East 88th Street was not really empty, as the “SWISH, SWASH, SPLASH, SWOOSH” sounds coming from the bathroom attested. When Mrs. Primm, wishing to wash the grime of moving off her hands, opened the bathroom door, she opened it on one of 20th-century children’s-literature’s most beloved characters: Lyle the crocodile.
I love this image of the smiling Lyle descending the stairs and the looks of horror on the faces of Mr. and Mrs. Primm; Joshua, though, looks happier than he does alarmed, an emotion borne out by the subsequent decades-long relationship with the benign saurian.
Bernard Waber’s gentle 1962 story of love and acceptance became instantly accepted itself, finding permanent places on bookshelves across the country and spawning eight further stories about the caviar-loving crocodile. The last was 2010’s Lyle Walks the Dogs, done in collaboration with his daughter, Paulis Waber.
He wrote and illustrated dozens of books over his nearly 40-year-long career, introducing children to a menagerie of anthropomorphized animals that connected instantly with them. Paraphrasing his own description of Lyle’s (temporary) departure from the Primms, “It [is] a tearful parting for everyone.”
Vicky Smith is the children’s & teen editor at Kirkus Reviews.