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Bernard Waber: A Biographical Essay


"This is Mr. Waber. Mr. Waber is the man who writes those stories about Lyle the Crocodile" is sometimes the way I am introduced to a child. We greet each other, the child and I, and I begin to imagine disappointment in the wide-eyed gaze. Perhaps there was expectation the "real" Lyle would leap out from behind this not-unusual-looking author. It is tempting, but I resist becoming Lyle and behaving in some ingratiating fashion to desperately compensate for the absent crocodile hero. I offer, instead, to show off some of my Lyle memorabilia, a collection acquired mostly through the generosity of good-humored friends and readers.

My own early efforts at drawing were mostly confined to the laborious copying of photographs of film stars and other celebrities of the day. 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.

Returning to civilian life, I discarded high finance for enrollment at the Philadelphia College of Art. It was a decision I never regretted. During the four years I attended school I found great joy in painting and drawing. Soon after graduation, and newly married, Ethel and I moved to New York, a city we loved at once and still do. I celebrated that feeling with the eventual publication of The House on East 88th Street (1962), which is celebrating its fortieth year in print this year. My first New York employment was in the promotion department of Condé Nast Publications, and although I have continued in the magazine field, writing and illustrating children's books has been my primary interest since 1961.

My involvement with children's books originated with some illustrations of children I carried in my art portfolio. Several art directors suggested that my drawings seemed suited for children's books. At the same time, I was also having read-aloud sessions with my own three children. I am afraid enthusiasm for "their" books began, in fact, to cause them occasional discomfort. "Daddy, why don't you look at the grownups' books?" they once chided as I trailed after them into the children's room of our local library. Before long I was mailing out stories and ideas to publishers. Rejections followed, but after a time a cheery encouragement arrived from Houghton Mifflin Company, and to my delight, a contract was offered for Lorenzo.

In one way or another, I seem to find myself thinking of children's books most of the time. I even enjoy the period when I am between books, for it is then that I am (I hope) susceptible to all manner of adventurous thought. I've never been very good at thinking at the typewriter. I seem to write best when in motion. Trains, subways, even elevators seem to shake ideas loose from my head. Although I write and illustrate, I believe if forced to choose between the two, I would choose writing. There is a freedom about writing that appeals to me. You can do it almost anywhere — and I have.