Fun Facts About the Author-Illustrator of Inch by Inch
by Iman Khan and Cristy Bertini
From a young age, Leo Lionni was surrounded by a family that loved and appreciated art in all its forms. His family pushed him to go to museums such as the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam—where he had a special elementary student pass that allowed him to draw the art in front of him by great artists, including Van Gogh, Rembrandt, and Kadinski, as well as “re-create” in his sketchbook any of the museum’s many sculptures and paintings.
But while he had a strong start on his journey to becoming an artist, Leo took a detour and earned a doctoral degree in economics at the University of Genoa. He later returned to the arts, working as a graphic designer, art director, painter, and serendipitously, a children’s book author.
In 1959, on a trip from Manhattan to Greenwich, Connecticut, Leo’s grandchildren were making a fuss on the train ride home. Desperate to keep them occupied, he tore up a nearby magazine and made up a tale on the spot to calm them down. That story became his first picture book, Little Blue and Little Yellow, published the following year.
Share these fun facts with your students to learn more about Leo Lionni and his road to writing and illustrating.
Leo Lionni’s books include personal lessons from his own life.
Upon first showing Little Blue and Little Yellow to children’s book editor Fabio Coen, Leo said that it would “take more than one evening with Fabio before I could fully understand how much the simple little tale of two blobs of color would affect my soul, my mind, and my way of life,” he wrote in his memoir, Between Worlds: The Autobiography of Leo Lionni.
Leo’s general strategy for making books involved tackling issues such as isolation, being different, and growing up—in the most straightforward way possible.
For example, his book Tillie and the Wall—published around the time of the Berlin Wall’s fall in Germany—was also a commentary on division, curiosity, and acceptance.
Leo used chalk, stamps, cutouts, color pencils, oil paints, and crayons to create his picture books.
He was one of the first artists to use the collage medium in children’s book illustration as his main art style.
Children weren’t Leo’s only target demographic.
Leo believed that a good children’s book should appeal to people of all ages.
“The fact is that I don’t make books for children at all. I make them for that part of us, of myself and of my friends, which has never changed, which is still a child.” —Leo Lionni
Leo loved nature and its little critters.
Leo used earth tones in his illustrations that were as close as possible to the actual colors of objects he found in nature. In Inch by Inch, Leo used realistic shades of brown and burnt orange in his collage of a robin and shades of brown and dark green leaves for the tree branches. He also liked using mice as his main characters, such as in Frederick and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse.
Leo was diagnosed with Parkinson’s disease in the early 1980s, but he continued to write and illustrate for another decade. He left behind a legacy of more than 40 children’s books, four of which received Caldecott Honors.
Leo Lionni wrote and illustrated more than 40 highly acclaimed children’s books. He received the 1984 American Institute of Graphic Arts Gold Medal and was a four-time Caldecott Honor winner—for Inch by Inch, Frederick, Swimmy, and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. Leo died in October of 1999 at his home in Tuscany, Italy, at the age of 89.
Photo: © Mondadori via Getty Images
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