Leo Lionni was born into a family that appreciated art, and, from a very young age, he knew he wanted to be an artist. He loved nature and started keeping small creatures--minnows, birds, fish, and more--in his attic room in Amsterdam. He also created terrariums, and many of these natural details found their way into his later work. Like so many successful children’s authors, Leo Lionni was able to remember and tap into the things that were important to him when he was a child.
As his interest in drawing grew, he was mentored by his Uncle Piet, who was both an architect and an artist. Leo was very lucky to live just a few blocks from two wonderful museums. Further, as a child he had a special pass so he could go there to draw whenever he wished. He learned to draw details from great works--plaster casts of famous statues, and they made such an impression on him that many decades later he could still remember them perfectly, as he could with clarity recall so much about his tiny pets and naturescapes.
Leo’s Uncle Willem was a diamond broker and famous art collector. He traveled a lot, so he stored these amazing paintings with his relatives, including Leo’s family. Leo grew up surrounded by work from some of the most famous avant-garde painters which complemented the more traditional art he saw in the museums.
His parents went to America without him when he was twelve-years-old. He lived with his grandparents in Brussels, but eventually he joined his mother and father in Philadelphia. Rather soon though, the family moved to Italy. It was there that he would eventually meet his wife, Norah. By the time they returned to America just as World War II was heating up, the young Lionni family had two sons.
Leo was able to get a job in advertising, and he did this for some time very successfully. He helped create the famous ad campaign for the Ladies Home Journal: Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman. He wanted more freedom in his work, so he he moved to New York City and opened his own office where he took on many famous clients such as Time/Life magazine, Fortune, Sports Illustrated, and Olivetti, a leading typewriter manufacturer.
He got into writing and illustrating children’s books almost by accident. He was trying to entertain his young grandchildren on a trip when he created a story about a blue dot and a yellow dot that got together by accident and then needed to come apart again. Little Blue and Little Yellow was such a success that soon he was writing and illustrating many more stories for children. He used a collage technique to make the pictures interesting, fresh, and appealing to kids. Many of his stories are fables, teaching a moral lesson--often in cooperation or cleverness or the importance of things not always valued. His books won many awards and are still treasured to this day. Sixteen of them can be found in the collection, Frederick’s Fables.
Born: May 5, 1910, in Amsterdam (Netherlands)
Son of Louis (a certified public accountant and businessman) and Elizabeth (a concert pianist)
Education: attended schools in Holland, Belgium, United States, Italy, and Switzerland. Received a Ph.D. in economics from the University of Genoa.
He spoke five languages: German, Dutch, English, French, and Italian.
Married: December, 1931, Nora Maffi
Children: Louis, Paolo
Immigrated to the United States: 1939
Naturalized citizen: 1945
Worked as: a design director, artist, author, and sculptor. His work has been shown throughout Europe and America.
First book: Little Blue and Little Yellow (1959). It was originally thought up to entertain his grandchildren during a train trip.
Honors and Awards (selected):
- Inch by Inch, Swimmy, Frederick, and Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse were all Caldecott Honor Books
- Elected to Art Directors Hall of Fame, 1974
- George G. Stone Center for Children’s Books Award for a body of work
- Jane Addams Children’s Book Award, 1988, for Nicolas, Where Have You Been?
Died: October 11, 1999, in Chianti (Italy)
May Author Birthdays
Numerous lesson plans for Lionni’s books to use with Pre-K through 3rd grade.
100 Years of Leo Lionni
His publisher’s site has fun activities, a gallery, and a biography divided into chapters.
The Art of Teaching with Reflection
An interview with Annie, Leo’s granddaughter, in which she discusses her grandfather’s work and its importance.
'Imaginary Garden' blooms in Amherst: Leo Lionni sculpture has home at the Carle Museum
In his later years, Leo Lionni took up sculpture. His imaginary garden, a sculpture in metal, has been given a place at the Eric Carle (A Very Hungry Caterpillar) Museum. This is very appropriate since Leo Lionni mentored Eric Carle, and their styles are somewhat similar.
Activities for Pre-K on Leo Lionni
Simple ideas for Alexander and the Wind Up Mouse, Fish Is Fish, The Biggest House in the World, and An Extraordinary Egg.
Picture Books through YouTube:
Cornelius, a crocodile who walks upright, sees things no crocodile has ever seen before.
Frederick by Leo Lionni
“While other mice are gathering food for the winter, Frederick seems to daydream the summer away. When cold weather comes, it is Frederick the poet-mouse who warms his friends and cheers them with his words. Teaches the importance of art and poetry... as food for the spirit!”
Fish Is Fish, by Leo Lionni
"Two best friends, a minnow and a tadpole, are practically inseparable until the tadpole grows legs and decides to explore the world beyond the pond. When the tadpole, now a frog, returns to tell his friend of the extraordinary things he’s seen, the minnow, now a fish, tries to follow in his footsteps, but quickly finds that land is not what he expected. Friendship truly saves the day in this imaginative tale of a fish out of water."
"Three selfish frogs live together on an island in the middle of Rainbow Pond. All day long they bicker: It’s mine! It’s mine! It’s mine! But a bad storm and a big brown toad help them realize that sharing is much more fun. With characteristic clarity, simplicity and exuberance, Leo Lionni makes it possible for kids to see themselves through the antics of others who share our world."
"Deep in the sea there lives a happy school of little fish. Their watery world is full of wonders, but there is also danger, and the little fish are afraid to come out of hiding . . . until Swimmy comes along. Swimmy shows his friends how—with ingenuity and teamwork—they can overcome any danger."
Sources marked with an asterisk (*) are available to cardholders through the CRRL’s database portal.
*Bumiller, Elisabeth. "A Mind Full of Frogs, Mice and Snails Grows Riper." New York Times 4 Sept. 1997. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.
*Malinowski, Sharon. "Leo(nard) Lionni." Contemporary Authors Online. Detroit: Gale, 2000. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.
*"Leo Lionni." St. James Guide to Children's Writers. Gale, 1999. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.
*"Leo(nard) Lionni." Major Authors and Illustrators for Children and Young Adults. Gale, 2002. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.
Lionni, Leo. Between Worlds: The Autobiography of Leo Lionni. New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1997.
*Heller, Steven. "Leo Lionni, 89, Dies, Versatile Creator of Children's Books." New York Times 17 Oct. 1999. Gale Biography In Context. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.
*Potts, Lesley S. "Leo(nard) Lionni." American Writers for Children Since 1960: Poets, Illustrators, and Nonfiction Authors. Ed. Glenn E. Estes. Detroit: Gale Research, 1987. Dictionary of Literary Biography Vol. 61. Literature Resource Center. Web. 2 Apr. 2012.