An upbeat crocodile savors pleasures such as ice-skating at Rockefeller Center and having a picnic in Central Park
Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile. By Bernard Waber. Houghton Mifflin, 48 pp., $6.95, paperback. Ages 3 and up.
By Janice Harayda
It’s not easy being green and living in a bathtub in New York City. Just ask any young fan of Lyle, an anthropomorphic crocodile who made his picture-book debut in 1962 in The House on East 88th Street and has reappeared in more than a half-dozen sequels that celebrate the joys of urban life.
Lyle lives with Mr. and Mrs. Primm and their son, Joshua, in a New York City brownstone that has a high stoop, fanlight window, and claw-foot bathtub in which he relaxes. He revels in urban life even as he startles shoppers and irritates a neighbor whose cat he has frightened.
One of Lyle’s endearing traits is an almost pathological optimism. In Lyle, Lyle Crocodile, he is exiled to a zoo after he follows Mrs. Primm to a department store and creates a commotion by putting on an exuberant show with Signor Hector P. Valenti, his former partner in a traveling stage act, who now sells pajamas. Lyle weeps during his first night in a cage but rebounds when visitors arrive and he becomes the biggest star in the zoo. Still, he misses the Primms until a heroic deed enables him to go home and, at last, win over the testy neighbor whose cat he had upset.
Bernard Waber combines strong black lines and blend of bold and subtle watercolors to suggest the depth and variety of New York City. And he brings Lyle’s personality to the fore by alternating full-color pages with black, white and green spreads. Partly because he draws better than he writes, his work ranks several notches below that of Chris Van Allsburg and David Macaulay and others who also have been nurtured by his editor, the esteemed Walter Lorraine of Houghton Mifflin.
But few fictional characters can match Lyle’s infectious enthusiasm for joys of city life – riding taxis, feeding pigeons, ice-skating at Rockefeller Center. Many good children’s books deal with the urban experiences of a specific group – blacks, Hispanics, white girls rich enough to live at the Plaza. And we need those books. We also need books that say: Great cities like New York abound with joys that transcend your race, ethnicity or bank balance. Lyle, Lyle Crocodile does that, and nearly two generations of children have been grateful for it.
Best line/picture: “Lyle could spend hours watching building construction.” The focus on free or low-cost pleasures in this book is all the more appealing when a good seat for a Broadway show costs $100 and even a one-way subway ride will set you back $2.
Worst line/picture: A sign at an information desk says: “On parle francais” and “Aqui se habla español.” Using the tilde on español but not the cedilla on français is sloppy. And the some of the characters’ names are cute rather than witty or apt.
Published: 1965 (first edition) www.houghtonmifflinbooks.com/authors/waber/
Caveat lector: Some reviews suggest that the quality of this series falls off with later books, which I haven’t read. I welcome comments from teachers, librarians and others who can speak to this issue. And contrary to what you might expect from its title, Waber has written Lyle, Lyle Crocodile in prose, not poetry.
Reviews of books for children or teenagers appear every Saturday on One-Minute Book Reviews.
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.