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An Interview with Bernard Waber


Q What were your inspirations for Courage?

A Jotting down thoughts and observations about courage has absorbed me for years. Not just the kinds of courage featured in headlines, but also life's general challenges from infancy such as beginning to walk, tying one's shoes, starting school, and so on. Although I had begun writing Courage long before 9/11, that tragic day was so deeply affecting, and so defining of courage for us all, it influenced the book's inclusion of firefighters and a police officer. Also, it was personally significant because of my long friendship with a (now-retired) New York City firefighter, and the concerns my family shared with his for the well-being of their two firefighter sons who were engaged in rescue missions at the twin towers.

Q What does "courage" mean to you?

A It's the summoning of core strengths, faith, and idealism in confrontation with life's challenges. My parents' bracing themselves against all odds during the Great Depression taught me valuable lessons in this regard. However, because we are humans with frailties, courage can also mean asking for help and support in the face of overwhelming circumstances.

Q What do you hope children and adults will take away with them from reading Courage?

A Although the book is purposely light in approach, I hope it can serve as a springboard for open discussion of all kinds of troubling and challenging circumstances.

Q What books did you turn to as a child for comfort, hope, and joy?

A Frequent family moves made me the perennial new kid on the block with no prospect of immediate friends, so books became my friends. I borrowed insatiably from various neighborhood branches of the Philadelphia library. I liked fairy tales—especially the dark ones by the Brothers Grimm—and page-turning adventure stories like The Call of the Wild. I treasured Heidi and Pinocchio because they were my first gift books, and I took pride in owning them.

Q What books do you turn to now?

A I'm drawn to biographies of people in the arts—composers, painters, dancers. I want to know about their struggles as well as their achievements. In fiction, I enjoy unique voices like Toni Morrison's, and I like discovering new writers such as Jonathan Safran Foer. I also enjoy reading young adult novels like Holes and The Giver. And I sure love picture books.

Q Describe your creative process from idea or inspiration to finished work.

A I enjoy it all–researching, writing, rewriting, sketching, illustrating, and designing. Humorous notions and whimsical thinking usually trigger ideas. In the process of writing I like discovering the serious underside of whatever I initially thought was funny. Writing and illustrating are all of a piece. When I am in the illustrating phase, I often fine-tune the writing. Sometimes it's a bit scary because I want so much to produce a book worthy of readers.

Q Having created so many books, and such memorable characters such as Lyle the Crocodile and Ira, do you have a favorite memory of working on a particular book?

A I have a special fondness for my first Lyle book, The House on East 88th Street. I was fairly new to New York City at that time, so writing and illustrating a book offered an opportunity to express the joy and excitement I felt living and working in this city. It was extremely satisfying.

Q What do you feel is your greatest contribution to children's literature?

A I hope I have nourished children's appetites for reading.

Q Your books relate perfectly to the childhood experience. Do you remember your own childhood well?

A I have vivid memories of my childhood, growing up in Philadelphia, that still serve my writing. I was considerably younger than my three siblings. My sister and two brothers were very creative, and their love for art and music molded me for life.

Q What are some of the most memorable fan letters you have received?

A Children have always been generous in their comments. They always ask insightful questions about various aspects of my books and about my intentions. One letter I recall with relish was a serious one from a boy who asked for tips on writing, requesting that I rush my reply because he had an early deadline. I was happy to oblige him.

Q What is your favorite part of being a children's author and illustrator?

A My favorite part is the excitement of fresh inspiration and thinking an idea is the most wonderful idea I have ever had. This feeling is soon tempered by the annoying critic in my head, who moves in with doubting questions— but the excitement is fun while it lasts.

Q You have quite a collection of Lyle memorabilia. Can you describe some of the more unusual pieces?

A I have acquired many through the years. There are three favorites. One is a small antique bathtub with a custom-designed stuffed Lyle reclining in it. Another stuffed Lyle, six feet long, was handmade by a creative and devoted friend. The third is a fantastic quilt assembled by schoolchildren depicting Lyle as well as some other of my book characters.

Q What are some of your hobbies?

A I can't really call them hobbies, but I like cooking, playing piano––although I'm not very good at it–– and going to movies and the Broadway theater.

Q What is the next project you will be working on?

A I have two stories in the very early stages of development. One is a story about two best friends and how competing for the same part in a school play affects their friendship. The other is a new story with my old friend Lyle.

 

 


Voices of the Creators
by Bernard Waber

In my book Nobody Is Perfick, a little girl doing homework tries desperately not to slip into daydreaming. She resists daydreaming with gargantuan will. She gulps down glasses of water. She chews bubble gum furiously. She stands on her head. She somersaults. But in the end she succumbs to a perfectly lovely daydream.

True confession: That was me, or in the words of Flaubert's reference to Madame Bovary, "C'est moi." I was that kid, a hopeless, chronic daydreamer. Everyone told me it was bad—bad, bad, bad—to daydream. "Wake up! Snap out of it!" These were admonitions of my childhood. And don't think I wasn't worried. I tried everything to cure myself of this pernicious affliction. If a support program were available to cure daydreaming, I would have rushed to sign up. The problem deviled me all through my maturing years. Even in the army, sergeants constantly bellowed at me to wake up.

True confession: I still suffer from the same affliction. The only difference is, now I'm encouraged to do it. Now, it's quite proper for me to do it. Now, I'm even expected to do it. So, when I am asked where I get my ideas, I'm tempted to say, "I'm only doing what I've always done—daydreaming."

True confessison: The idea and plot for Names Will Never Hurt Me came to me while shaving one morning. The story has nothing to do with shaving; it has to do with a little girl named Alison who has the unfortunate surname of Wonderland. Get it? Alison Wonderland. Often, my ideas begin with just such musings. An absurd name like Alison Wonderland tickled me. But digging deeper, I was moved by the burden of troublesome names, and that burden became the central theme. Similarly, in Ira Sleeps Over, a little boy's dilemma on whether or not to take his teddy bear along on his first sleepover seemed like a funny idea. But probing the idea's underside revealed tantalizing complexities—peer pressure, separation, self-belief, even sibling rivalry.

True confessison: Among the really pleasurable dividends of writing for children are the letters children send to authors. In their letters, children talk freely about family, friends, school, pets, sports, everything crucial to their lives. They also want to know about their authors—absolutely everything. Sometimes I think kids want more personal information than my health insurance plan. My age and other vital statistics are matters of keen interest. I always tell the truth about my age because I love to astonish children. A frequent question from children is, "What made you become a writer?" Early environment has much to do with it. My siblings, a sister and two brothers, all older and all artistic, were a major influence. My sister played piano and wrote poetry. She also wrote love letters, in the fashion of Cyrano de Bergerac, for love-stricken, but less poetically expressive, friends. She read her love letters to the family for critical comment and hearing them made us all fall in love just a little. My brothers wrote and drew, and I spent a major chunk of my childhood hanging over their shoulders, observing words and pictures emerge on paper.

True confession: I did not set out to be an author. I began professionally as a designer and illustrator for magazines. My illustrations tended toward whimsy, and my love of drawing animals led to this fatal attraction—children's books. Quality time, for me, meant hanging out in bookstores—looking, looking, looking at picture books. And looking wasn't all that easy way back then. Unlike today's mammoth book chains, where one could literally spend the day reading War and Peace unnoticed an unmolested, back then I could scarcely begin browsing without an overzealous clerk offering unsolicited assistance. I did, however, buy lots of children's books, mostly as gifts, but many for myself to satisfy and insatiable appetite for them. Children giggle when I tell them I fell in love with picture books. One even asked, "Did you marry one?"

Later, as the father of three, I had three compelling reasons for giving children's books close scrutiny. I loved reading aloud and, as many parents do, began inventing stories. I probably caused my children some self-consciousness as I constantly trailed after them into the children's room of our library. Once, they suggested that I might find more appropriate books in the grownups' department.

True confession: It was too late to change a habit—especially one so possessing. Besides, I had already begun to write my first children's book.

Written by Bernard Waber, from Children's Books and Their Creators, edited by Anita Silvey, published by Houghton Mifflin Company, © 1995