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An Appreciation: Bernard Waber Made Crocodiles Lovable

One of my favorite writers died this week. He wasn’t a literary lion, he wasn’t recognized as a young prodigy, he didn’t show up on Oprah’s Book Club, he probably didn’t get million dollar advances, and his name may not immediately ring a bell. But what he did, he did exceptionally well.

His name is Bernard Waber and he died at age 91 on Long Island. For those of you who still haven’t placed him, Waber is the author and illustrator of the Lyle Crocodile series as well as other books for kids, including the very funny Ira Sleeps Over.

Lyle Crocodile made his first appearance in 1962 in The House on East 88th Street, a brownstone occupied by the Primm family. Lyle shows up in the Primm bathtub one day, to the horror of Mrs. Primm, and then moves in, where he is quickly beloved by Mr. and Mrs. Primm and their son Joshua.

Lyle is the world’s most affable crocodile. He rarely, if ever, shows off his impressive teeth, as you’ll notice when you look at Waber’s charming illustrations. When he smiles, he beams, but those enormous jaws do not open. He is a lovely, soothing shade of emerald green, not the muddy olive color of a real crocodile, and his skin is not scaly or rough, but smooth. His eyes are small black dots, and his gaze is benign, unlike that of a real crocodile, which, in human terms, seems to have a rather limited range of expression. Lyle dances, skips, slides down stairs and goes shopping at a department store, where he causes a sensation.

It was a stroke of minor genius on Waber’s part to make his lead character a crocodile. Cats, dogs, birds, gerbils, mice, dragons: a dime a dozen in children’s books! But a crocodile, that’s another story.

There’s much humor and pathos to be extracted from a fish-out-of-water story, or in this case, reptile. Lyle doesn’t understand why people recoil from him in fear or reject his attempts to become friends. Lyle is green with envy when Joshua gets a birthday party, but not him. Lyle cries crocodile tears, but his emotions are real. Also, there’s a lot of fun to be had with the word “crocodile,” both the way it sounds and the way it looks on the page.

A talented illustrator, Waber was able to animate Lyle, who doesn’t speak, in a variety of ways just by adjusting the angle of what look like eyebrows, although crocodiles don’t have those, and giving him a grin that was more or less crooked, depending on Lyle’s mood. Lyle’s tail acts as a kind of semaphore for reading his state of mind, rather like a dog.

There are children’s books where you wish you could inhabit the same world that the characters do, and then there are children’s books where you’re glad, in the end, that you don’t. Lyle sits firmly in the first camp of children’s books.

He’s one of those creations that endears himself to you immediately without being saccharine, and Waber gets across his points about kindness and perceptions of difference without being preachy. The Lyle books also have a solid cast of supporting characters, which often makes the difference between a kid’s book that’s just fine and one that is memorable: the Primms, Mr. Grumps and his equally sour cat Loretta, and the dapper, if enigmatic Hector P. Valente, mustachioed star of stage and screen, who often takes Lyle with him on tour.

Finally, Waber’s obituaries note that after serving in the Army during World War II, he was able to enroll in the Philadelphia College of Art thanks to the G.I. Bill.

When people wax sentimental about the Greatest Generation they should also pause to remember the G.I. Bill, without which the Greatest Generation might not have been so great. I’m moved by the fact that Waber did his bit for his country but then found a way 20 years after the war to do what he loved best, which was writing and drawing books for kids — and that the G.I. Bill made it possible.

Nicola Smith can be reached at nsmith@vnews.com.