“When I am writing, I think of myself as a writer. But when I am illustrating, I think of myself as an illustrator. I think, though, that I try to create situations with my writing that will be fun to illustrate. The writer in me tries to please the illustrator.” — Bernard Waber.
Bernard Waber floats just under the top shelf of all-time great children’s authors and illustrators — you don’t hear his name much these days, when people list influences — but I suspect he’s under-appreciated. Certainly he’s written some great books, most notably Ira Sleeps Over and The House on East Eighty-Eighth Street., the first of many books starring Lyle the Crocodile. (Waber also has a knack for titles: A Lion Named Shirley Williamson is one of my favorites.)
I interviewed Bernard Waber in the early 1990’s. We spoke again a couple of years after that. I had hoped he could contribute to a book project, but we got sidelined when my son, Nicholas, was diagnosed with leukemia at age twenty-six months. Work just stopped for a while. Bernard understood, of course, and sent Nick a stuffed crocodile, some books, and a lovely handwritten note.
You don’t forget things like that.
So, yes, there’s bias here, an affection that goes beyond books. When I spoke with Bernard Waber more than 15 years ago — and I’m happy to report he is still going strong at age 84 — his intelligence shined through. He spoke about his craft with clarity and immodesty, as clear and refreshing as cool water. An innate goodness courses through his books. And his stories, no matter how humorous — how sly, dry, and understated — often contain real sensitivity. He writes from the heart.
“The nice thing about humor,” Waber told me, “is that after you have an idea that you think is humorous, there is always another side that’s sad and complicated. Those are the things you discover after you start writing.”
Ira Sleeps Over finds Waber at his best, capturing the inner angst of a childhood dilemma: the first sleepover. Ira is invited to sleep at his friend Reggie’s house — but he has never slept without Tah Tah, his Teddy Bear. Can Ira risk the embarrassment? With staccato dialogue, Waber deftly explores Ira’s confusing, conflcting emotions. In addition, the dynamic with the older sister rings so true. Because somehow Waber knows. He remembers.
His 2002 book, Courage, in which various characters encounter the need for bravery, was inspired in part by 9/11, though he primarily drew upon childhood memories of the Great Depression. I love the cover:
Waber told Becky Rodia, of Teaching K-8 magazine, “Courage is 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.”
When I think of Bernard Waber, I think of someone who showed us what a picture book can achieve. Laughter, childlike appeal, and adult insight. For that, and for more personal reasons, I offer this tribute. I don’t know who handles these things, but I hereby nominate Bernard Waber for a lifetime achievement award for his contributions to children’s literature.
Note: If you enjoyed this appreciation — the fourth in a series — just click the links for thoughts on other literary lions: William Steig, Arnold Lobel, and Raymond Chandler.