Leo Lionni. We know him for Swimmy and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. We know him for his delicate, childlike torn paper illustrations in beautiful, often muted colors.
He was born in the Netherlands and lived in Italy, working as a painter. He moved from Europe to New York because of World War Two. There, before making his first picture book, he was an art director for ad agencies and Fortune magazine.
That first picture book was Little Blue and Little Yellow and he was 50 years old when it was born. I love that.
Little Blue and Little Yellow, the first of many, started from a story Lionni told his restless grandchildren on a train. He tore bits from Life magazine to illustrate it. (His grandchildren weren’t the only passengers who listened to the tale.)
He won the AIGA Medal in 1984 for his contribution to design.
He was also a trout fisherman, just in case you wanted to know that, too.
Illustrations from Fish is Fish (1970)
Here’s Lionni, from the introduction to Frederick’s Fables:
“What tempts, excites, and motivates me is the underlying unity of the arts,
their many surprising connections and cross-references,
and the central poetic charge they share.”
Illustration from Swimmy (1963)
Lionni’s stories are truly fables, illuminated with his signature cut paper collage or pastel drawings. The characters are animals—mice, fish, frogs, snails—and they have stories to tell. To each other and to us. Stories of discoveries. Of kindnesses. Of sharing.
Always a character telling stories to another. Stories of another world. Stories that create community and connection.
Illustrations from Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse (1969)
So often there are doubles in Leonni’s work. Alexander the mouse and his wind-up mouse friend. The two fish in Fish is Fish where one becomes a frog. Birds that can fly and a bird who can’t. And with each pair, there is curiosity about the other. Wishes and imaginings and often coming back to being content with who they already are.
Illustrations from Frederick (1967)
Frederick is an archetypal Lionni dreamer. A poet. A storyteller. One who sees things and tells others about them. Many characters in Lionni’s books are that way. Perhaps because that’s who Lionni was himself.
After his death in 1999, this NYT tribute says the following about Lionni’s artistic journey:
“Seeking a way to combine his applied and fine art work, he hit upon children’s books as the perfect means.
There he found the key to unlocking decades of personal fears, joys, insecurities and loves,
by presenting them through animal metaphors.”