Bernard Waber died last week at the age of 91. If that name doesn’t ring a bell for you, then you need to go straight to your local library and pick up one of many beautifully-illustrated kid’s books about a happy crocodile living on the Upper East Side of Manhattan with the humans Mr. and Mrs. Primm and their son, Joshua.
Waber was the author and illustrator of the sweet and lovely Lyle the Crocodile books. He wrote over 30 books for children in total, including one of my personal favorites, Ira Sleeps Over, in which a little boy debates whether or not to bring his teddy bear to his friend Reggie’s house for a sleepover (“Will he laugh at me?”).
All of Waber’s work was touched not only by exceptional illustrations, but also by insight. Waber was graced with the talent to truly see into the hearts of children, and to communicate their needs and wishes through the unlikely prism of a brownstone-dwelling crocodile. Waber’s talent lay in the way he conveyed important lessons about empathy, love and goodness in a way that comes across as genuine rather than preachy. Today’s moralistic kid books, in comparison, mostly have the subtlety of a sledgehammer.
Anyone with more than one child would serve themselves well to get a copy of Waber’s Lyle and the Birthday Party.” In this book, Joshua is having a birthday party and Lyle finds himself swept up in a bitter tide of unexpected jealousy. In fact, Lyle is so mad about all the attention being paid to Joshua rather than him that he steps on one of Joshua’s gifts and breaks it – and genuinely doesn’t know whether he did it by accident or on purpose. I’ve never read a book that conveyed so well the pull of the tide of envy, or how those who are jealous sometimes genuinely don’t want to be, and hate it that they find themselves so upset. Isn’t that a great lesson for adults as well as children?
In fact, all of Waber’s books have something to teach adults as well as kids. The New York Times obituary for Waber singled out Lovable Lyle as worthy of note for its subtle and smart take on bullying and prejudice. Lyle is shocked to learn that someone “hates” him, and he doesn’t know why. “Down with crocodiles,” someone writes on a fence near his house, and sends him anonymous letters telling him they hate him.
“Well, Lyle,” Mrs. Primm tells Lyle, “it seems no matter how much we may think we want to, it isn’t always possible to please everyone, or be liked by everyone.”
I could use that lesson myself, personally. In recent days, I’ve been troubled by someone who seems to harbor an irrational dislike of me. Maybe we’d all be well-served to ask ourselves, “What would Lyle do?” In the book, Lyle continues to go about his life as his friendly, super-nice self—and in fact ends up changing the mind of the “hater” and her mother (the source of the hate) when he rescues her at the beach. “Be yourself,” Waber implicitly teaches, “and everything else will work out accordingly.” – something I’ve always believed.
Maybe it isn’t something I’ve ‘always’ believed – maybe my viewpoint on this and other topics was formed by the imaginary kindnesses of an Upper East Side crocodile. My mother and father read Waber’s books to me as a child, I read them to my sons, and now I read them to my daughter.
In reading and re-reading them to me, my parents implicitly taught me that Lyle and Bernard Waber had something to say, and something that was relevant to the way that I should live my life. And I hope to teach the same lesson to my children.
In Hebrew, the saying is “L’dor va dor” – from generation to generation, we pass down our values and traditions. While this is usually meant to refer to more explicitly Jewish rituals, I’d say it means our values as well – our beliefs in being the best people we can be, with our actions exemplifying empathy, kindness and gratitude.
There is another relevant Jewish saying: “Teach the child the way he ought to go, and even when he is old, he will not depart from it.” I think of that as I light candles on Friday night, as my sons sing the prayers, my daughter puts the coins in the tzedakah box, and my other daughter looks on — and as I re-read, for the one billionth time, the stories of the happy reptile on East 88th Street.