One afternoon in 1959, as author-illustrator Leo Lionni describes that day, "a little miracle happened." Having boarded a commuter train bound from Manhattan for Connecticut, he faced the necessity of entertaining two fellow travelers, his 5-year-old grandson and 3-year-old granddaughter. As the youngsters vaulted from seat to seat, he recognized that "fast creative thinking" was in order.
Lionni, who was, in his late 40s, already an internationally recognized artist and graphic designer, had resigned recently from a ten-year interlude at Time, Inc.: for a decade, he had been the art director of Fortune magazine. So it was that he happened to be carrying in his briefcase an advance copy of Life. As he opened the magazine, he recalls, "a page with a design in blue, yellow, and green gave me an idea." "Wait," Lionni announced, "I'll tell you a story." Next, as he remembers, "I ripped the page out and tore it into small pieces. The children followed the proceedings with intense expectancy. I took a piece of blue paper and carefully tore it into small disks. Then I did the same with pieces of yellow and green paper. I put my briefcase on my knees to make a table, . . . placed the round pieces of colored paper onto the leather stage and improvised a story about the two colors."
The result of his efforts was his first picture book, Little Blue and Little Yellow, published within months by the firm MacDowell Obolensky. From that fortuitous beginning, Lionni has gone on to write and illustrate more than 30 picture books, which have sold millions of copies throughout the world and include four Caldecott Honor titles, Inch by Inch, Frederick, Swimmy and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. (A selection of his books, Five Lionni Classics, also is available on videocassette from Random House.)
Fortunately for Lionni fans, a handsome collection of his works, Frederick's Fables: A Treasury of 16 Favorite Leo Lionni Stories, has just been published by Knopf. The appearance of this compendium coincides with the re-lease of Lionni's autobiography, Between Worlds, also from Knopf.
His memoir offers an excursion, in the company of a humane and literate guide, into the worlds that have shaped his protean career as an artist, designer, sculptor and children's book author. Lionni began drawing in his early childhood: he grew up in Am-sterdam, a few blocks from the Rijks-museum. "On many a Saturday morning," he writes, "while my schoolmates met in the park for a game of soccer, I would walk to the museum with a box of pencils, a small drawing board, sheets of paper, and a folding chair. . . . There in the great hall, I would draw." He was also a passionate amateur naturalist-collector and a painstaking architect of elaborate terrariums.
In that garret of his childhood lay the sources of the magical books he would create. "Not so long ago," Lionni writes, "I suddenly realized that the dimensions of my children's books are exactly the same as those of my terrariums. I also discovered that the protagonists of my fables are the same frogs, mice, sticklebacks, turtles, snails, and butterflies that more than three-quarters of a century ago lived in my room. And even the paper landscapes they now inhabit are identical to the ones I used to build with real sand, pebbles, moss, and water."
Each of Lionni's books is imbued with a dreamy ardor, the glowing images and measured text paying homage to everyday beauties, to light and to life. In Frederick, for instance, an aspiring poet field mouse has stored away the memories of colors and the cadences of verse to sustain his family throughout a winter of cold and hunger. The little bird who is the central figure in Tico and the Golden Wings dispenses his gilded feathers to assuage loss: "I gave my golden feathers away," Tico explains, "and . . . I bought many presents: three new puppets for a poor puppeteer, a spinning wheel to spin the yarn for an old woman's shawl, a compass for a fisherman who got lost at sea . . ." And the murine protagonist of Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse ventures deep into an enchanted garden in order to transform and rescue a beloved friend. Lionni's heroes and heroines are, one and all, rooted in openheartedness and generosity--traits that should amplify every child's sense of what is right with the world.
Today, Lionni, who spent his young manhood in Italy (he fled the Fascists for America in 1939), divides his time between a New York City apartment and a 17th-century farmhouse in Tuscany. Many of his children's books have taken shape on sunny afternoons in an Italian studio. In that world, where bees drone, geraniums bloom and lizards skitter across stone paths, Lionni's dreams have trans-mogrified into timeless picture stories.
This year's children's titles, too, let us lay claim to imaginary landscapes where darkness gives way to light; honor and simple kindness win out; and creativity redeems us all.
For the Youngest Readers [2-4 years]
A Year Full of Stories: 366 Days of Story and Rhyme by Georgie Adams, illustrated by Selina Young (Doubleday, $24.95 through December, $29.95 thereafter) Dauntless Dr. Dog to pixilated billy goats, a ravishingly original anthology of short selections, for children from age 2 to 6 or so.
The Mice of Mousehole written and illustrated by Michelle Cartlidge (Candlewick, $14.99) Another entrancing installment in the author's chronicle of the venturesome Mouse family, and an inventive lift-the-flap book that will offer toddlers hours of absorbing fantasy.
Good Times with Teddy Bear written and illustrated by Jacqueline Mc-Quade (Dial, $12.99) Scuffling in crisp leaves, playing checkers, snuggling into bed, a reprise of a toddler's day that is certain to become a favorite.
Beep! Beep! Oink! Oink! Animals in the City written and illustrated by Patricia Casey (Candlewick, $16.99) On crowded sidewalks, in backyards and on rooftops, pigeons and dogs, foxes and bats, share our space. This witty walking tour should engage even the squirmiest listener.
A Child's Seasonal Treasury compiled and written by Betty Jones (Tricycle Press, Berkeley, California, $22.95) Constructing paper lanterns to baking hot-cross buns, a cornucopia of songs, poems, recipes and crafts conjures up a simpler time for children as young as 2, all the way up to 7 or beyond.
Nocturne by Jane Yolen, illustrated by Anne Hunter (Harcourt Brace, $15) In the moonlit hours of "owls with deep feathers," dozing dogs and children "tucked up under eiderdown," the sleep spirits reign. Hunter's paintings are dreamy and delectable.
For Middle Readers [4-10]
The Big Katie Morag Storybook written and illustrated by Mairi Hedderwick (Bodley Head/Trafalgar Square, North Pomfret, Vermont, $19.95) An irresistible reintroduction to the be-loved Katie tales, this collection of stories and poems offers passage to the fictional Scottish isle of Struay. The author has drawn on the years she lived on isolated Coll to create a winning evocation of sea, sky and close-knit village life.
The Summer of Stanley by Natalie Kinsey-Warnock, illustrated by Donald Gates (Cobblehill, $14.99) Stanley is (you'll never guess) a goat and a first-class nuisance, too. (It's 1945 and the victory garden is a goner.) Yet he manages to prove his mettle in a winsome tale from home-front America.
Author: A True Story, written and illustrated by Helen Lester (Houghton Mifflin, $10.95) From the creator of Tacky the Penguin and other hilarious hits, a self-deferential and endearing account of the scribbler's trials. Could be a crossover hit: grown-ups suffering from writer's block surely could benefit from Lester's revelations.
Marven of the Great North Woods by Kathryn Lasky, illustrated by Kevin Hawkes (Harcourt Brace, $16) In 1918, during the influenza epidemic, the author's father was sent away from the outbreak in Duluth to a Minnesota logging camp. This tale of the kindly lumberjacks who looked after a shy and bookish boy is unforgettable.
Junk Pile! by Lady Borton, illustrated by Kimberly Bulcken Root (Philo-mel, $15.95) Hubcap rosebushes, sculptures from fan belts: a young artist discovers beauty in the most unlikely of places, her father's junkyard. Borton's portrait of a plucky heroine, set in Appalachia, is testament to the power of the imagination.
A Street Called Home written and illustrated by Aminah Brenda Lynn Robinson (Harcourt Brace, $18) In an accordion-style foldout book with flaps, the author has re-created the lost world of Mount Vernon Avenue in 1940s Columbus, Ohio. Along the way, she opens doors on the lives of people--the vegetable vendor, the herbalist--who inhabited a thriving African-American neighborhood.
Little Bobo Saves the Day by Serena Romanelli, illustrated by Hans de Beer (North-South, $15.95) The return of the violin-toting orangutan is a welcome diversion indeed: in this episode, Bobo braves the world outside the rain forest to locate medicine for his ailing uncle. A surefire child pleaser.
Jump the World: Stories, Poems, and Things to Make and Do from Around the World written and illustrated by Sarah Pooley (Dutton, $17.99) Don't stay home without it: this whirlwind tour offers tempting TV alternatives for children from 4 to 10 or so.
The Girl Who Dreamed Only Geese and Other Tales of the Far North, told by Howard Norman, illustrated by Leo and Diane Dillon (Harcourt Brace, $22) The novelist and two master illustrators have created a radiant rendition of ten Inuit tales, evoking a world of polar bears and puffins, shamans and snowstorms. From these pages emanate wisdom and compassion in great measure.
The Mother-Daughter Book Club by Shireen Dodson (HarperPerennial, $12.95) Journeying into the life of the mind with your daughter: Dodson's primer on reading together features reading lists and discussion guides.
Treehouse Tales by Anne Isaacs, illustrated by Lloyd Bloom (Dutton, $14.99) From their perch in a chestnut tree, at once their lookout and hideaway, three Pennsylvania farm children from the 1880s find adventure and emergent selfhood on the frontier. This high-spirited round of stories has the makings of a classic.
The Adventures of Odysseus retold by Neil Philip, illustrated by Peter Ma-lone (Orchard, $17.95) The ultimate adventurer, his exploits recast vividly by a writer-folklorist, beckons us to set out on the long voyage to Ithaca. The paintings shimmer with the light of the Aegean.
Seven Brave Women by Betsy Hearne, illustrated by Bethanne Andersen (Greenwillow, $15) The author delved into her own family history to weave a tapestry of kind-liness and accomplishment: the farm-er and artist, physician and architect and homemaker she describes were her own forebears.
The Milkman's Boy by Donald Hall, illustrated by Greg Shed (Walker, $16.85) Hall continues his cycle of stories from rural and small-town America (Smithsonian, November 1996) in a tribute to the dairy business owned by his father's family from the late 19th century to the 1960s. Donald Hall is a national treasure.
Clouds for Dinner written and illustrated by Lynne Rae Perkins (Greenwillow, $15) If your parents love poems and paintings and scudding clouds, certain amenities may slip, say providing sit-down dinners and making the beds. A celebration of quotidian magic and family affection that belongs on every child's bookshelf.
Tomás and the Library Lady by Pat Mora, illustrated by Raul Colón (Knopf, $15) One summer in 1940s Iowa, a librarian welcomed a migrant worker child who found the wider world--and his future--in books. This powerful story is based on the boyhood of Tomás Rivera, who would grow up to become chancellor of the University of California, Riverside.
Meredith: The Witch Who Wasn't by Dorothea Lachner, illustrated by Christa Unzner (North-South, $15.95) Not really cut out for a life of broomsticks and incantations, one nonconformist sorceress decides to "bake bread from scratch" and take up domesticity instead, in a clever subversion of wicked witchery.
Mythical Birds and Beasts from Many Lands by Margaret Mayo, illustrated by Jane Ray (Dutton, $19.99) From the rocky shores of Cornwall to the for-ests of Burma, tales of mermaid and Minotaur, rivetingly retold.
The Blue Hill Meadows by Cynthia Rylant, illustrated by Ellen Beier (Harcourt Brace, $16) Four stories convey a year in the life of the Meadow family, homebodies at peace with the world in Blue Hill, Virginia. This tranquil quartet introduces a family we hope we shall hear more of.
Lives of the Athletes: Thrills, Spills (and What the Neighbors Thought) by Kathleen Krull, illustrated by Kathryn Hewitt (Harcourt Brace, $19) These quirky profiles of sports figures, Jim Thorpe to Babe Didrikson Zaharias and Pelé, are breezy and inspiring.
Over the Moon: An Adoption Tale written and illustrated by Karen Katz (Henry Holt, $15.95) The author, who traveled to Central America in 1991 to adopt an infant, drew on her own experiences to create this lilting account of a journey into the prov-ince of parenthood.
Til Year's Good End: A Calendar of Medieval Labors by W. Nikola-Lisa, illustrated by Christopher Manson (Atheneum, $16) Mending sheepfolds, weaving reeds into baskets, harvesting grain--the work of the Middle Ages, illumined by dramatic watercolors.
Passage to Freedom: The Sugihara Story by Ken Mochizuki, illustrated by Dom Lee, afterword by Hiroki Sugihara (Lee & Low, $15.95) In 1940, Chiune Sugihara, the Japanese consul to Lithuania, defied his own government and personally issued visas to Jewish refugees fleeing from Poland. He may have saved as many as 10,000 lives. This testament to one man's courage should be read in homes and classrooms across the nation and the world.
Pedrito's Day written and illustrated by Luis Garay (Orchard, $14.95) During a workday in a Central American market, a boy loses something of value and finds himself. This coming-of-age story is accompanied by Ga-ray's bold paintings: he has been com-pared, and rightly, to Diego Rivera.
Farmer's Market written and illustrated by Paul Brett Johnson (Or-chard, $15.95) Homegrown tomatoes heaped high: into a Saturday world where a farm girl is granted her wish on the day she helps out at her family's produce stand. Johnson transports us to a vanishing America.
A Rainbow at Night: The World in Words and Pictures by Navajo Children by Bruce Hucko (Chronicle, $14.95) Mesas glowing in the dusk, weavers at the loom--an odyssey, guided by youngsters 5 to 13, into Native American creativity and culture.
The Most Beautiful Roof in the World: Exploring the Rainforest Canopy by Kathryn Lasky, photographs by Christopher G. Knight (Harcourt Brace, $18) This eloquent explication of field scientist Meg Lowman's work in the realm of macaw and bromeliad could lead a child to a life's work.
The New Oxford Treasury of Children's Poems compiled by Michael Harrison and Christopher Stuart-Clark, illustrated by selected artists (Oxford University Press, $25) The anthology format raised to new heights: this collection of verse, by bards as various as Yeats and Nikki Giovanni, should hold pride of place on any youngster's bookshelf.
The Borrowed Hanukkah Latkes by Linda Glaser, illustrated by Nancy Cote (Albert Whitman, Morton Grove, Illinois, $15.95) A celebration of golden potato pancakes and candles burning bright, this evocation of the winter holiday glows with neighborliness and cheer.
Elephant Woman: Cynthia Moss Explores the World of Elephants by Laurence Pringle, photographs by Cynthia Moss (Atheneum, $16) At Kenya's Amboseli National Park, researcher Moss has made her life with these threatened creatures, illuminating their complex kinship structures. Pringle's account of her pioneering research is informative and affecting.
Cracked Corn and Snow Ice Cream: A Family Almanac by Nancy Willard, illustrated by Jane Dyer (Harcourt Brace, $18) "When I was a child," the author writes, "the only place more exciting than Oz was Iowa." She and illustrator Dyer traveled the back roads of Iowa and Wisconsin, transcribing the recollections of their rural relatives. The result is a fetching compendium, chock-full of country lore and first-person family history.
Rikki-Tikki-Tavi by Rudyard Kip-ling, adapted and illustrated by Jerry Pinkney (Morrow, $16) This version of a classic, the tale of the courageous mongoose who vanquishes all cobra enemies, is a triumph. Pinkney's illustrations are works of genius.
Richard Wright and the Library Card by William Miller, illustrated by Gregory Christie (Lee & Low, $15.95) In 1920s Memphis, the young man who would become a great American writer could not borrow books from the whites-only library. Ultimately, Wright forged his own passage to Dickens and Tolstoy: Miller's transcendent account of this moment is memorable indeed.
The Adventures of Pippi Longstocking by Astrid Lindgren, illustrated by Michael Chesworth (Viking, $25) At last, all of the red-braided rebel's most exciting escapades (Smithsonian, November 1995), replete with new line drawings and color plates, collected in one volume.
Finding Walter by Ann Turner (Harcourt Brace, $16) When two sisters arrive at their grandmother's country house for a year's stay, they restore a long-abandoned dollhouse and its family to the world of play. Then the magic begins. This touching and timeless novel is certain to become a perennial favorite.
Bright Star by Gary Crew, illustrated by Anne Spudvillas (Kane/Miller, $13.95) Amateur astronomer John Tebbutt, living in rural Australia, discovered the "comet of the century" in 1861, using only a small marine telescope. The fictional reprise of his career also introduces a young girl whose passion for geometry leads her to Tebbutt's night-sky observatory.
The Gardener by Sarah Stewart, illustrated by David Small (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $15) Stewart's enchanting story, at once an ode to the art of growing things and a window on the Depression, also pays homage to roof gardens, spunky heroines, the lost art of letter writing and happy endings.
The National Wildlife Federation Book of Family Nature Activities by Page Chichester (Henry Holt, $14.95) Wading into swamps to attracting hummingbirds: the 50 projects described here will indeed "make learning a family adventure."
The Neptune Fountain: The Apprenticeship of a Renaissance Sculptor written and illustrated by Taylor Morrison (Holiday House, $15.95) In 17th-century Rome, a boy enters an artist's studio to learn the demanding art of creating monumental figures. This skillful amalgam of fact and fiction limns an era and an art form.
For Older Readers [10 and up]
Run Away Home by Patricia C. McKissack (Scholastic, $14.95) In this page-turning novel, the author has turned for inspiration to her Native American and African-American an-cestors. Set in Alabama in 1888, this account of a sharecropper family who gives refuge to a fugitive Apache boy illumines a little-known interlude in American history.
Project Puffin: How We Brought Puffins Back to Egg Rock by Stephen W. Kress, as told to Pete Salmansohn (Tilbury House, Gardiner, Maine, $16.95) The true story of biologist Kress' dream--to restore the habitat on two Maine islands and reestablish Atlantic puffins there--is by turns suspenseful, informative and heartening. A separate and equally admirable teacher's guide is also available.
Leon's Story by Leon Walter Tillage, collage art by Susan L. Roth (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $14) Leon Tillage, born the son of a sharecropper in 1936, grew up in the segregated South. His account of those days of terror, and of the family who sustained him, is a remarkable American document.
Children of Summer: Henry Fabre's Insects by Margaret J. Anderson, illustrated by Marie Le Glatin Keis (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $14) A biography of the 19th-century Provençal entomologist who "was a famous explorer," although he "seldom left his own backyard." This superb introduction to the challenge and joy of scientific observation should inspire the next generation of field scientists.
The Atlas of the Classical World by Piero Bardi, illustrated by Paolo Ravaglia and Matteo Chesi, Ferruccio Cucchiarini, with Michael Grant, consultant (Peter Bedrick, $19.95) The large-format volume represents a foray into worlds from Minoan Crete to classical Athens and Rome. Spectacular illustrations and accessible scholarship make for a rare and wonderful reference book.
Oh Freedom! Kids Talk About the Civil Rights Movement with the People Who Made It Happen by Casey King and Linda Barrett Osborne, foreword by Rosa Parks (Knopf, $18) In a series of 31 interviews, children took tape recorders into the homes of family members, friends and activists and created a vivid documentary account of the movement. The message, as Rosa Parks writes, is clear: "ordinary people working together can change history."
Nesuya's Basket by Carol Purdy (Roberts Rinehart, $8.95) The Maidu Indians of Northern California were a peaceable nation of hunter-gatherers. This novel, recounting a Maidu girl's adolescence in the 1840s, as settlers began to arrive, is a revealing portrait of an imperiled culture.
The Acorn Eaters by Els Pelgrom (Farrar, Straus, Giroux, $16) From the distinguished Dutch novelist, a young boy's journey to manhood, set in a village near Granada in the years following the Spanish Civil War. This remarkable work of historical fiction, now adroitly translated, is based on the childhood recollections of the author's late husband. Note: there is a minimal amount of sexual content.
Silverwing by Kenneth Oppel (Simon & Schuster, $16) Into the night, soaring with bats: a tour-de-force fantasy starring a chiropteran hero trying to make his way back to his home colony. A can't-put-it-down adventure for readers from around age 8 all the way to adult.
Warriors, Warthogs, and Wisdom: Growing Up in Africa by Lyall Watson, illustrated by Keith West (Kingfisher, $16.95) Writer and world traveler Watson, who spent his childhood in the African bush, has produced an extraordinary memoir. His cast of characters includes a warthog who became the family watchdog. Not to be missed.
Finding the Lost Cities by Rebecca Stefoff (Oxford University Press, $24.95) Nineveh, Angkor Wat, Chaco Canyon, Machu Picchu and beyond. This lively survey of 12 buried and re-discovered cities is spellbinding. The aspiring archaeologists on your list will cherish such a book.
Big Bang: the story of the Universe by Heather Couper and Nigel Henbest, illustrated by Luciano Corbella (DK, $16.95) Expanding galaxies to black holes: this stellar excursion into astro- physics, astronomy and beyond is stunning, lucid and lavishly illustrated.
A Voice for the People: the Life and Work of Harold Courlander by Nina Jaffe (Henry Holt, $16.95) Beginning in 1932, folklorist Courlander began traveling the world to collect traditional tales before these stories were lost to time. Jaffe has produced an absorbing account of a life that melded adventure and intellectual passion.