A Tribute to the Author of Frederick
by Alexie Basil
This week, as we remember Leo Lionni nearly 20 years after his passing, we may be tempted to think of him as a creator of children’s books. After all, he’s the recipient of four Caldecott Honors and has more than 40 books to his name, which are treasured by children across the globe. So children’s book author seems like a fitting title.
But Lionni himself might have disagreed.
“The fact is that I don’t make books for children at all,” he once quipped. “I make them for that part of us, of myself and of my friends, which has never changed, which is still a child.” And in his work, we can definitely see an abundance of childlike innocence, optimism, and joy.
Leo Lionni was born in Amsterdam in 1910 to a family of art lovers and was nurtured by three uncles (an architect, an artist, and an art collector) who encouraged his expressive talents. Growing up, he spent a lot of time observing the world around him—collecting small critters, studying and sketching the plaster casts of famous statues at the Rijksmuseum, and admiring the avant-garde paintings collected by his uncle Willem.
In the 1920s, he attended high school in Genoa, Italy. Fascism and communism were battling for control of the state at the time, and Lionni found himself immersed in the conflict when he married Nora Maffi, the daughter of one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party.
When the fascists took power in 1922, Maffi’s father was placed under house arrest. This experience was one of the first of several nudges that would encourage Lionni to always create works with deeper meaning—and also marked the beginning of his interest in futurism, an artistic and social movement that had a fraught relationship with fascism.
In the early 1900s, futurism emerged as a way for artists to celebrate technological advancement and modernity. At least in the beginning, the artwork didn’t stick to a specific style—rather, it was characterized by its movement and representation of sensations. (You can read more about futurism here). Lionni was influenced by this style and quickly became a prominent figure in the movement.
(Fun fact: One of the only books he created for adults was called Parallel Botany—it features imaginary plants in a futuristic style!)
After earning a doctoral degree in economics from the University of Genoa, Lionni moved to the United States and began work as a designer for N. W. Ayer, an advertising firm. It wasn’t long after that Lionni’s talents were recognized and he was hired as an artistic director.
In New York, one of Lionni’s most challenging clients was Fortune magazine. Of the experience, he said, “Once Henry Luce asked me, ‘Why can’t Fortune be as good-looking as Harper’s Bazaar?’ My answer was obvious: ‘Because businessmen are not as good-looking as fashion models.’”
After taking the job, Lionni elevated Fortune’s status significantly and changed the way it was perceived in the art world.
By 1941, his success had caught the attention of the US government, who commissioned him to make three propaganda posters during World War II. Today, much of his work is on display at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
At 50 years old, Lionni had made a name for himself in design and decided to retire. That’s when his career in children’s literature began. In 1959, Lionni published his first children’s book, Little Blue and Little Yellow, which was based on a story he made up for his grandchildren on a long train ride from New York City to Greenwich, Connecticut. It was a huge success! After relocating back to Italy, Lionni began to produce many other famous children’s books, including Frederick, Swimmy, and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse.
Lionni’s artwork in children’s books is notable for its collage style, emphasis on nature, and diminutive critter stars. Usually the stories follow a small animal on a journey where an inherent quality—cooperation, artistic ability, resilience, etc.—allows the protagonist to prevail.
Notably, Lionni believed it was important that his books “say something.” He once said, “My stories are meant to stimulate the mind, to create an awareness, to destroy a prejudice.”
Whether he was creating for children or for the inner child in himself—and in every reader—Leo Lionni’s works delight readers worldwide, reminding them about what it means to be human.
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