Author/illustrator Bernard Waber, creator of the iconic character Lyle the crocodile and more than two dozen picture books for children, died on May 16 after a long illness. He was 91. Waber introduced the debonair Lyle in the classic The House on East 88th Street (1962), which marked its 50th anniversary last year. Lyle, Lyle Crocodile (1965) and several sequels followed, along with numerous other acclaimed titles, such as the well-reviewed Courage (2002), a touching celebration of acts of bravery large and small.
“Bernie Waber has been a cherished member of the Houghton Mifflin Harcourt family for decades, and those of us who knew and worked with him are devastated by his death,” says Betsy Groban, SVP and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Books for Young Readers. “His warmth, energy, artfulness, elegance, and abiding respect for children were epitomized in his books. Bernie’s gentle and urbane spirit will live on in the many books for children that we are honored to have published.”
Adds Karen Walsh, executive director of publicity, “He was a lovely man, as I’m sure anyone who ever met him would agree, and his books are among the greatest children’s books to ever grace a bookshelf.”
Waber was born in Philadelphia in 1921. He briefly studied finance at the University of Pennsylvania before leaving to serve in the Army during WWII. Later, he enrolled at the Philadelphia College of Art. “It was a decision I never regretted,” Waber once said in an autobiographical essay.
After graduation, he moved with his wife Ethel to New York City, where he landed a job in the promotion department of Condé Nast. On the suggestion of several art directors, he began to submit stories and ideas for children’s books to publishers, and landed a contract with the Houghton Mifflin for Lorenzo (1961), a picture book tale of a very curious fish. He continued in the magazine field for decades while pursuing his love for writing and illustrating children’s books.
Waber collaborated on his final book, Lyle Walks the Dog (2010), with his daughter Paulis.
“In one way or another, I seem to find myself thinking of children’s books most of the time,” Waber once said. “I even enjoy the period when I am between books, for it is then that I am (I hope) susceptible to all manner of adventurous thought….I seem to write best when in motion. Trains, subways, even elevators seem to shake ideas loose from my head. Although I write and illustrate, I believe if forced to choose between the two, I would choose writing. There is a freedom about writing that appeals to me. You can do it almost anywhere—and I have.”