Obituary: Bernard Waber / Children's author and illustrator

Sept. 27, 1921 - May 16, 2013


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Bernard Waber, a children's book author and illustrator whose most famous creation was a rope-skipping, ice-skating Manhattanite named Lyle who happened to be a crocodile, died May 16 at his Long Island home in Baldwin, N.Y. He was 91.

The cause was kidney failure, said his daughter Paulis.

Mr. Waber's Lyle was different and just like everybody else. He was an orphan with a mysterious past. He lived on the Upper East Side. He was kind and sensitive. He was green. He did not cry crocodile tears.

In a 1965 review of the second book in the series, "Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile," George A. Woods wrote in The New York Times that "the easy naturalness" of Mr. Waber's illustrations makes Lyle "seem perfectly plausible."

Mr. Waber introduced Lyle to readers in 1962 in "The House on East 88th Street," in which Mr. and Mrs. Joseph F. Primm and their young son, Joshua, are startled -- and eventually smitten -- when they find a young crocodile in the bathroom of their new house. They take the animal in and, for the next four decades, Lyle would take readers on adventures filled with life lessons on acceptance, inclusion and the importance of enjoying the journey. The covers of the books sometimes suggested they were best suited for ages 4 to 8, but Mr. Waber's understated wit appealed to plenty of parents.

In "Lovable Lyle," published in 1969, Lyle is stunned to learn that, for reasons he does not understand, he has an enemy. "Down with crocodiles," someone writes on a fence near his town house.

"Well, Lyle," Mrs. Primm tells him, "it seems no matter how much we may think we want to, it isn't always possible to please everyone, or be liked by everyone."

That reminder does not stop Lyle from trying to win over his enemy, and he eventually does. A few years later, in "Lyle Finds His Mother," Lyle sets out to find his biological mother. She is not what he expected -- she looks like a crocodile, not a green Mrs. Primm -- but he is thrilled to have found her.

"A mother," he concludes, "is still a mother."

"Lyle, Lyle, Crocodile" also inspired two different adaptations: an animated musical that was shown on HBO and a theatrical musical staged by Theatreworks USA.

Mr. Waber wrote at least 33 books, which together sold more than 1.75 million copies, according to his publisher, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. In addition to his Lyle series, he wrote other popular titles, including "Ira Sleeps Over," about a boy who is invited to his first sleepover and worries whether he should bring his teddy bear. In 2002, he wrote "Courage," which described many ways children can display bravery, including being the first to apologize. In 2010, he and his daughter Paulis co-wrote "Lyle Walks the Dogs."

Bernard Waber was born on Sept. 27, 1921, in Philadelphia. His father, Henry, emigrated from Austria; his mother, Pauline, was born in Russia.

Mr. Waber briefly studied accounting at the University of Pennsylvania before enlisting in the Army during World War II. After the war, he used the GI Bill to enroll in the Philadelphia College of Art. He moved to New York City in the mid-1950s and worked as a designer and illustrator for several magazines, including Life, where he worked for 20 years.

In his spare time, he began tinkering with the character of Lyle, but his early concepts were rejected by publishers. In 1961, he published his first book, "Lorenzo," about the adventures of a young fish. Then Lyle got his chance.

"I don't know where the idea came from," Mr. Waber told The Times in 1995. "But I always loved drawing animals. I especially like to draw crocodiles. I like the way they walk, and I like their eyes and their teeth and everything about them."

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