Happy 101st Birthday Leo Lionni!
Wikipedia tells us that Leo Lionni “was an author and illustrator of children’s books” and though his marvelous children’s books are what he may be most widely recognized for, he was much more as well. From Lionni’s autobiography BETWEEN WORLDS, here’s just a taste of some of the things he did in his earlier professional life—he was “a highly successful advertising director (he invented the famous “Never underestimate the power of a woman” campaign) and a powerful force in the world of graphics as the art director of Fortune magazine; from life in the affluent commuter world of Connecticut to a return to Italy and the life of an artist. After all this—a full life by any account—he finds yet another successful vocation as the author and illustrator of children’s books that have sold millions of copies throughout the world.”
I have been a fan of Lionni’s books for as long as I can remember, as a child and when I volunteered at my local library I always made sure to include at least one of his books for story hour. I literally share a lifetime with these stories, since his first picture book, LITTLE BLUE AND LITTLE YELLOW, and I were both born in 1959. At the time he wrote Little Blue and Little Yellow Lionni was 50 years old (see folks, it’s never too late to add to your career or resume). This delightful story was created during a train ride to Greenwich, CT in what ended up being a very successful attempt to entertain his grandchildren.
The first of Lionni’s books I encountered was FREDERICK, a fable about a mouse who is a dreamer and a poet. Frederick doesn’t participate in the usual gathering of supplies for winter survival along with the other mice, instead he gathers things that came in just as handy as food—the warmth of the sun’s rays, colors for a gray day, and words “For the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say”. Of course when the mice had run through their supplies, it’s Frederick’s own special supplies that really do save the day.
Like many of Lionni’s characters Frederick was a dreamer—Matthew in MATTHEW’S DREAM wanted to be a painter rather than a doctor, and in SWIMMY we see one small fish with the vision to rally his fellow fish and work together to escape a much larger fish and therein avoid becoming the large fish’s dinner.
Wonderful, simply-told fables that embody themes of peace, teamwork and social justice, these are all appropriate for readers of any age. And of course his talents were recognized on several occasions in the children’s bookselling community as Lionni was the recipient of 3 Caldecott Honor Awards for FREDERICK, ALEXANDER AND THE WIND-UP MOUSE, and SWIMMY.
If you’re lucky enough to find a copy of Lionni’s autobiography BETWEEN WORLDS in your library, give it a read, you’re sure to enjoy your visit with this man of many talents.