You know you’re in for a treat the moment you step off of the elevators on the fourth floor of the National Museum of American Jewish History — and find yourself face-to-snout with a series of illustrations of a most familiar reptilian face lining the otherwise blank wall.
Following this green, smiling crocodile leads to the special exhibit space of the museum, with quite a special exhibit: “Lyle, Lyle Crocodile and Friends: The Art of Bernard Waber.”
Heading into the exhibit space, glass cases with illustrations of Lyle, a childhood reading staple for many, as well as a menagerie of other imaginary friends from Waber’s oeuvre, like Do You See a Mouse?, Evie and Margie, An Anteater Named Arthur and A Lion Named Shirley Williamson, fill the wall space and outline the room.
A reading area for children — complete with a bathtub where Lyle is cleaning himself off — allows for kids to familiarize themselves with Lyle’s stories while plush crocodiles lay on the floor for playtime.
The exhibit, which opened Aug. 27 and runs to Nov. 1, provides a glimpse into Waber’s life and the timeless stories he created.
Waber, who died in 2013, was born in 1921 to Jewish immigrant parents and spent a large majority of his life in New York City, as well as right here in Philadelphia — a fact that came as a surprise to many staff members.
“I think I and a lot of the museum staff grew up with Waber’s books — I remember The House on East 88th Street and I remember Lyle,” said Shira Goldstein, exhibition coordinator for the museum. “I think we were all pleasantly surprised to find out that Waber also had a Philadelphia connection.”
Waber’s local roots provided an opportunity to “enrich the story” and add in some local flair, she added.
“We learned through Waber the struggles of growing up in the Great Depression and his journey to becoming the illustrator we all know,” she said. “It’s a great immigration story — and a great Philadelphia story for our local audience.”
Waber was born and raised in North Philadelphia, and attended the Philadelphia College of Art — now known as the University of the Arts — and took courses at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts.
But one local hot spot that he remembered visiting often to sketch was the Philadelphia Zoo — namely the zoo’s Reptile House.
The exhibit on Lyle and friends was most recently at the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Amherst, Mass. Waber’s hometown roots and his characters’ lasting legacies inspired the museum to stage the exhibition here.
Lyle, particularly, provided a connection that Goldstein felt would appeal to families and exhibit-goers of all ages.
“Lyle himself is an outsider as a crocodile living in a human world, but he’s very relatable,” she explained. “He’s like any human in the emotions he feels” — like when Lyle gets jealous that his brother gets a birthday celebration and Lyle wonders why it isn’t his birthday, too, in Lyle and the Birthday Party.
“He’s relatable to children and families across generations,” she continued. “It doesn’t matter if you read the books in the ’60s or are reading them today — the emotions Lyle feels and the situations he’s in are relatable to everyone.”
The exhibit includes Waber’s original illustrations for his stories, as well as dummy books, or manuscripts, for about 26 of his 30 books, and even his own art supplies.
Following the path of the space after the displays on Lyle, Waber’s other worlds are featured, including his cats and mice and books like Ira Sleeps Over and Courage. Such stories allow children to also read about real emotions, such as jealousy and fear, as embodied in deciding about going to a sleepover for the first time and whether or not to bring a teddy bear — a feeling we have probably all experienced, Goldstein opined.
“There’s a section about friendship and kind of the trials and tribulations of being a child and dealing with friends,” she added, citing the story of Evie and Margie, two best friends who try out for the same role in a school play.
The section on Courage provides a “beautiful look at fear and what it means to be courageous,” Goldstein said, “whether it’s small things —one of them is tasting the food before making a face — or bigger things, like diving off a diving board for the first time, or when a firefighter runs into a burning building.”
The exhibit also takes a look at the processes Waber used in his illustrations — which were much different than production today.
Waber used “color separation,” which involved separating the picture into the four main colors — cyan, magenta, yellow and black — in order to create the full colors of the illustration (for Lyle, of course, there was quite a lot of green). This process and numerous illustrations through the various stages of separation are also displayed in the exhibit.
While the story of Lyle may be one many remember just from childhood, it appeals to people of all ages — and a smile has no age limit, as demonstrated by the reaction when people arrive at the exhibit space.
“Everyone lights up when they get off the elevator and see a ginormous Lyle,” Goldstein said.
The exhibit provides a chance for families to learn more about their own lives and experiences with the aid of Waber’s storytelling, she added.
“It’s a chance for multigenerational groups to come together and learn more about Bernard Waber the man, and have a greater appreciation for his books and the wonderful stories and illustrations he created.”
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