Children’s author-illustrator Bernard Waber, creator of much-loved picture books about Lyle the crocodile and other anthropomorphic animals, died on May 16 after a long illness. He was 91.
Waber was born in Philadelphia on September 27, 1921, and grew up in the City of Brotherly Love. Though he enjoyed drawing when he was a child, he didn’t consider an art career early on. Waber entered the University of Pennsylvania to study finance, but after his first year, left school for a stint in the Army during WWII (1942-1945). In a biographical essay, Waber stated, “Returning to civilian life, I discarded high finance for enrollment at the Philadelphia College of Art. It was a decision I never regretted.” He studied an additional year at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Upon graduation from art school in 1951, Waber moved to New York City with his new wife Ethel to pursue a career in commercial art. As he told author/editor Anita Silvey in her 1995 book Children’s Books and Their Creators: “True confession: I did not set out to be an author. I began professionally as a designer and illustrator for magazines. My illustrations tended toward whimsy, and my love of drawing animals led to this fatal attraction – children’s books.”
Various magazine art directors suggested to Waber that some of his drawings might be right for children’s books, a vote of confidence that spurred him to mail some samples to publishers. Houghton Mifflin published his first book, Lorenzo, about a curious fish, in 1961. Waber has said that his fondness for New York and for his and Ethel’s first home in that city inspired The House on East 88th Street (1962), the book in which Lyle, the popular crocodile, is discovered in the Primm family’s bathtub. In addition, Waber shared in various interviews that reading aloud to his own three children, and accompanying them to the children’s room at the library, were other catalysts for his immersion in the world of children’s literature.
Wordplay, humor, sensitivity, and his signature comic-influenced drawings are the hallmarks of Waber’s more than 30 books for children. In 2002, Waber’s book Courage received warm reviews as a picture book that served as a springboard for discussions about coping with challenges of all sizes, including the tragic events of September 11. Waber said in an interview with his publisher that he had been working on the book idea for a long while, but felt new purpose about it in wake of that historic day and wanted to include a policeman and fireman in the book.
Waber suffered from macular degeneration later in his career and had been unable to draw for several years due to the eye disorder. But in 2010 Waber collaborated with his daughter Paulis, also an artist, to create Lyle Walks the Dogs, in which Lyle masters a new job: dog walker. The elder Waber frequently described Lyle’s features and feelings to Paulis and was able to see her artwork through magnifying equipment during the book-making process, according to Houghton Mifflin.
Betsy Groban, svp and publisher of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt’s Children’s Book Group, offered this remembrance: “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. His warmth, energy, artfulness, elegance, and abiding respect for children were epitomized in his books. The lovable and debonair crocodile, Lyle, made his debut in the classic The House on East 88th Street, and immediately became a favorite of children everywhere. It was followed by the further adventures of Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile, Ira Sleeps Over, and Courage, among many others. Bernie’s gentle and urbane spirit will live on in the many books for children that we are honored to have published.”
Correction: an earlier version of this story listed Waber's age as 88.