Dutch children’s author-illustrator Dick Bruna, widely known for his iconic bunny character Miffy, died on February 16 at his home in Utrecht, the Netherlands. He was 89.

Bruna was born August 23, 1927 in Utrecht. During WWII the Bruna family left their home to take refuge in a lake district of the Netherlands, and it was during this time that Bruna began drawing and painting the natural world all around him. He got a very early start as an illustrator, when at age 16 he created a book jacket for the A.W. Bruna & Zoon publishing house founded by his great-grandfather. Bruna’s father had hoped his son would become a publisher and arranged for Bruna to work in bookshops in Utrecht and London, as well as at a publishing company in Paris, to learn the business. But the artistic bug had a strong hold on the young Bruna, and when he returned to the Netherlands in 1948, he pursued professional instruction at the Art Academy in Amsterdam. He left the school after six months of study to work as a freelance illustrator, designing book jackets and posters. By 1951, he had joined his family’s publishing firm as a designer, and went on to create more than 2000 book jackets and posters.

In 1953, Bruna married Irene de Jongh and the couple had three children toghether. That same year, he published his first children’s book The Apple: A Toy Box Tale (Bruna & Zoon, Netherlands). Though he created 124 picture books for young readers, Bruna achieved his greatest recognition with his books about a certain white rabbit. During a family holiday in 1955, Bruna entertained his young son with sketches of a bunny that appeared in the garden at their vacation home. He made up bedtime stories about the creature, who became known as “Nijntje.” The first picture book starring the round-faced bunny with long pointed ears rendered in simple black line—Nijntje—appeared in 1955 from Bruna & Zoon. The book was a great success throughout Europe, and, in 1963, Methuen first published the book in the U.K., where translator Olive Jones changed the protagonist’s name to Miffy, noting that Nijntje was very difficult for non-Dutch readers to pronounce.

In all, Bruna created 32 books about Miffy—including several tales that introduced children to such difficult subjects as illness and death—and the series became a global hit, selling more than 85 million copies worldwide and translated into more than 50 languages. When he was asked about his bunny character’s broad appeal, Bruna said, “I think it is because I spend a long time making my drawings as simple as possible, throwing lots away, before I reach that moment of recognition. What matters is reducing everything to its essence. Every shape captures the imagination, and I leave plenty of space for children’s imagination. But why Miffy, instead of another of my characters? I don’t know, perhaps because children feel very close to her—she is like their friend. In my mind, she is just a little girl, living through everyday experiences.”

Miffy’s popularity spread beyond books and she became a licensing star, and the subject of several TV series. Miffy the Movie debuted in theaters in 2013, and Miffy merchandise has global sales of roughly $300 million annually. She has also graced high-end garments from several fashion designers.

Miffy was also a spokescharacter on posters that appeared on subway cars in New York City post-9/11, as a way to attract tourist families to the city once again. In London, Great Ormond Street Hospital for Sick Children houses a Miffy-themed ward, and, each year since 2000, children in Japan plant a giant field of tulips that blooms into a picture of Miffy. In March 2011, Bruna created a poignant illustration for the victims of the Japanese earthquake/tsunami—Miffy with two large tears rolling down her cheeks.

Utrecht is home to the Miffy Museum, where children can explore an interactive space, and in the city’s Centraal Museum, fans can visit Studio: Dick Bruna, an installation that is a replica of the studio in which the artist worked for several decades.

Bruna officially retired in 2012, though he still cycled to his studio each morning and worked on drawings, until his death. He is survived by his wife, three children, and six grandchildren.