I'm falling in love (all over again) with the children's books of Leo Lionni (1910-1999). During his long and prolific career as an artist, graphic designer, and author, he created more than 40 marvelous books for young readers. Lionni was awarded the Caldecott Medal for children's illustration a wildly impressive four times in the 1960s. Here are the medalists in order: Inch by Inch (1960), Swimmy (1963), Frederick (1967), and Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse (1969). Each tells a unique and memorable tale about a small creature (an inch worm, a tiny fish, a little mouse, and another little mouse) through incredibly colorful and textured collages that make the reader want to reach for a pair of scissors, and some paper, fabric, and glue. The use of bold and tactile collage immediately reminds one of Eric Carle's books, and Carle has frequently expressed his admiration for Lionni, citing him as an important artistic influence. Lionni's influence also extends into the 21st century through the work of rising star Steve Jenkins--an Amazon editors' favorite--who seems to be building upon the artists' legacy by relating stories about the natural world through a one-two punch of striking collage illustrations and scientific information.
But, back to Lionni. With dozens of books to choose from, where does the first-time reader of Lionni start? Well, at the beginning, of course, with his groundbreaking book little blue and little yellow. (The absence of capitalization in the title is deliberate; I'll leave it up to the reader to ponder what Lionni had in mind.) At the time of his small square book's publication in 1959, Lionni was already a very famous art director who influenced Madison Avenue advertising during the Mad Men era. He launched his second career one day while riding a commuter train from New York City to his home in Greenwich, Connecticut with his two grandkids in tow. In the crowded train, it wasn't long before the three year-old and five year-old started to get antsy, and Lionni had to put his creative powers to good use, and fast. In his autobiography he relates how inspiration struck:
"I automatically opened my briefcase, took out an advance copy of Life, and showed the children the cover, and tried to say something funny about the ads as I turned the pages, until a page with a design in blue, yellow, and green gave me an idea. 'Wait,' I said, 'I'll tell you a story.' " --Excerpt from Between Worlds:The Autobiography of Leo Lionni
Like a conjurer-philosopher, Lionni captivated his audience with a story of friendship between two very different colors who together created something entirely new and unexpected. Not only do they learn about the creative potential of primary colors, but they also teach their families and friends a few things about mutual appreciation and understanding along the way. little blue and litte yellow tells these important lessons through seemingly simple shapes of few colors set against the background of the square white page. The text is equally economical. Much of the story's narrative is told not through words, but rather through the careful choreography of the colorful shapes in relation to each other. Children immediately grasp the dance between the visual and verbal cues.
The occasion of the fiftieth anniversary of little blue and little yellow is the perfect time to introduce preschoolers to Lionni's timeless classic. This and Leo Lionni's other magical picture books just might inspire a new generation of creative heros.