Prolific author-illustrator Mike Thaler, best known for his many riddle books and his humorous Black Lagoon Adventures series, died on March 23 in Yakima, Wash. He was 87.

Michael Charles Thaler was born October 8, 1936, in Los Angeles, to Ben, a businessman, poet, and sculptor, and Jean Thaler. Though he was not fond of reading when he was a child, Thaler said in an interview with Scholastic that he’d been a writer “forever. I used to love to write and draw cartoons since the third grade.” His parents, especially his mother, encouraged him to keep at it.

Thaler graduated from L.A.’s Fairfax High School in 1955 and over the next two years studied English and art at UCLA as well as at the Art Center College of Design in Pasadena. While at UCLA, he saw his cartoon series “The Majors” published in the university’s newspaper, The Bruin.

In 1958, at the age of 22, Thaler moved to New York City to launch a career as a cartoonist. “What I really hoped to earn a living at was doing cartoons for adults,” he told Something About the Author. He made a good start on that goal, selling pieces to Harper’s Bazaar, the Saturday Evening Post, and several other publications. But his magazine work unexpectedly opened a door to the children’s book world. “Actually, they weren’t even funny cartoons, they were the ‘save-the-world’ kind,” he said. “Then one day, Ursula Nordstrom, an editor at Harper & Row, saw a picture story I had done for Harper’s Bazaar and asked if I had ever thought of doing children’s books.” Immediately after that fateful call in 1960, Thaler set to work, writing and illustrating a story that same night and taking it to Nordstrom’s office the next day. Nordstrom bought the manuscript, Magic Boy, about a boy who juggled rainbows, and published it in 1961.

A handful of other picture books followed, as well as a classic cartoon anthology, before Thaler embarked on a bold new project: a cartoon satire magazine he called Inkling. But when his funding for the venture fell through, Thaler stepped back from cartoon work and moved to upstate New York.

During this period, one of Thaler’s friends suggested he contact the Children’s Television Workshop, which was looking for writers. He met with a director of animation for PBS’s The Electric Company and pitched an idea called “Letterman,” about a flying superhero trying to save words from being altered by evil magician the Spell Binder. Thaler landed the gig and wrote scripts for the “Adventures of Letterman” segment for two seasons.

The 1970s also marked Thaler’s return to children’s books, when he wrote several books illustrated by other artists, including How Far Will a Rubber Band Stretch? (Parents Magazine Press, 1974), which was a big success. For the next 15 years he was very prolific, publishing more than 50 books, including 38 riddle collections he also illustrated.

In 1981, Thaler’s career in kids’ books took another fortuitous shift. Jean Feiwel, then an editor at Avon Books, hired Jared Lee to illustrate Thaler’s picture book manuscript A Hippopotamus Ate the Teacher, which began a creative pairing that would last through more than 95 funny books. Thaler and Lee kicked off the Black Lagoon series of picture books for Feiwel at Scholastic with The Teacher from the Black Lagoon in 1989 and the Black Lagoon chapter book series followed, beginning in 2002. In between, they also crafted The Bully Brothers (Grosset & Dunlap, 1993; Scholastic, 1995) and Tales from the Back Pew (Zonderkidz, 2002), among other series.

In all, Thaler created more than 220 books for young readers. His most recent title was The Magic Show from the Black Lagoon (Scholastic, 2020). For the bulk of his career, Thaler did numerous school and conference visits in person and via Skype, donning his signature yellow (his favorite color) garb, often from his hat down to his shoes. “I have learned that laughter is important,” he told SATA. “And I feel it is important for children to have a good body of humor, an intelligent body of humor.”

Apart from making readers laugh, he also sought to inspire them to follow their own dreams. “Love and creativity are the two basic elements of life to me,” he said. “If you put love and creativity into everything you do, you’ve got it made. This is the philosophy I live by, and the philosophy I teach.”

Teresa Imperato, executive director, school market publishing at Scholastic, who worked closely with Thaler, offered this tribute. “I have had the privilege of working with Mike Thaler on his Black Lagoon series,” she said. “Mike’s stories have brought so much joy and laughter to children for so many decades—including to my own kids. His unique ability to connect with, and gently reassure, readers with his signature humor and wit always seemed effortless. Mike’s legacy will live on in the incredible character of Hubie, whose anxiety about school mirrors that of so many children—maybe even more so today than when the series was launched 35 years ago.”

Jean Feiwel, publisher of Feiwel and Friends and senior v-p and publishing director at Macmillan, shared this remembrance: “Mike Thaler was one of the first authors I worked with way back at Avon Books and then at Scholastic. He wrote funny books. He was a very funny man. The first book I remember publishing was There’s a Hippopotamus Under My Bed. And many, many riddle books. But the book that really launched Mike’s career was The Teacher from the Black Lagoon. This began a long and very successful series. Mike was a tireless worker and a tireless promoter long before authors were promoting directly to children. He deemed himself ‘The Riddle King,’ well before anyone was branding themselves. He was an innovator and truly an original.”