Smithsonian Notable Books for Children, 1997

Smithsonian Notable Books for Children, 1997

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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.

Please note that age categories are really quite arbitrary: consult the temperament and predilections of the individual child.


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