Leo Lionni Interview

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Jan wrote this article after several conversations with Annie Lionni, Leo Lionni's granddaughter. Read to learn the dimensions of Mr. Lionni's artistic life and work, some of which he kept separate from his work making children's books.

Leo Lionni Interview


Lionni's characters remind us of him.

by Jan Miller Burkins

"Two fives and a ten--a small symmetry within the infinity of numbers. Two fives--my hands. Ten, my fingers. I would be making things." So opens Leo Lionni's autobiography, Between Worlds, with his poetic reference to his birth May 5, 1910. But it wasn't just the 100th anniversary of Leo Lionni's birth that prompted Literacyhead to begin assembling this author study. It wasn't that Frederick has his own postage stamp, that Swimmy is celebrated in Japan, or even that Leo Lionni owned part of Fiddler on the Roof. Rather, Leo Lionni was the first children's author I studied with a group of children, and when Literacyhead's leadership team discussed potential first author studies for our magazine, Lionni was the choice that felt like coming home.

Lionni's first book for children

In the spring of 1989, I began student teaching in Mitzi Irvine's kindergarten class. On the first day I entered the class, Mrs. Irvine was reading aloud Little Blue and Little Yellow. She explained to me, "We are doing our Leo Lionni author study." Mrs. Irvine told the class the story of how Leo Lionni came up with what would become his first children's book. She told a story about Mr. Lionni traveling by train with his two grandchildren, whom he wanted to entertain. So he tore pages from a magazine and made up the story that would later become a classic. In a recent conversation, I asked Annie about the train ride and the story about Little Blue and Little Yellow's beginnings.

JMB: Do you remember the event?

AL: I don't. What I remember is that over the years the story morphed. I remember hearing the story when I was a little girl. I was three, but over the years, from the time I first started knowing that story, the two kids on the train got more and more rambunctious. And finally when the fiftieth anniversary of
Little Yellow Little Blue came out last October, the two little kids were so out of control that my brother and I were two little devils on that train. The wonderful folks art Random House who brought that book back wanted to tell that story in the back flap of the book. My feeling was that was fine as long as it was done in Leo's words and not as the two horrible little kids. And so we went through his autobiography and we picked through his description and my brother and I had our reputation back intact.

Annie described
Little Blue and Little Yellow as lacking the self-consciousness one might expect with a first children's book. It grew spontaneously, its success unplanned, and so its authenticity has resonated with readers for 50 years.

Little Blue and Little Yellow marked the beginning of Leo Lionni's career as a writer and illustrator for children, he was deeply entrenched in other dimensions of the world of art long before he shaped those pieces of yellow and green paper on the train with his grandchildren.

Uncle Piet's portrait of young Leo (from the collection of the Lionni family)

Lionni's interest in art was no surprise, as he grew up in a family of involved in the arts. He was an only child and an only grandchild on both sides of his family. So he spent much of his childhood in the midst of adult conversation, and in his family this meant there was much talk about the arts. Annie explained this to me.

AL: Art and music were fostered in him. I have to tell you. He had Parkinson's for the last ten years of his life, and when it became really impossible for him to walk, towards the end of his life, he could come into my apartment and sit down at the piano and just let loose.

You know with all of his favorite popular songs of the 20s, or polkas or whatever they were, but he played with, you know, ten fingers and both feet -- when he couldn't remember really how to walk.

JB: Wow! As for his exposure to the visual arts, he had an uncle who actually had six Picasso portraits and there was a Chagall that hung outside of your grandfather's childhood bedroom. He also lived near a couple of museums where he spent much of his time.

AL: Yes, in Amsterdam. He was surrounded by the arts. My grandfather had an uncle who was an architect and he took drawing lessons. He was kind of a clean fellow, not really a sweaty kid. He spent time in museums. He was an only child and in fact, he was an only grandchild on both sides and he had many aunts and uncles on both sides so he had a lot of attention from a generation and two generations older than himself. So, that was fostered in him.

Lionni's last book

Annie went on to explain that her grandfather was as much "think tank as he was an Artist with a capital?�Ë?A,' as he referred to fine art." This is perhaps the most compelling aspect of Leo Lionni's children's books. They have something to say, and they have been speaking to children for generations.

Annie spoke to the intent of her grandfather's books, "They all had a message," she said. She went on to explain that the messages have made his books classics. The adults who were children when his books were published remember them for their art and for their intent and now they buy them for their own children.

In Between Worlds, Lionni wrote of his thought behind Swimmy. He explains, "The ethics of art not only as a pleasurable but as a useful activity was clearly the moving force in the book. The central moment is not so much Swimmy's idea of a large fish composed out of lots of tiny fish but his decision, forcefully stated, that 'I will be the eye.'" Swimmy grasps the "ethical implications of his own place in the crowd" (p. 232).

All of his books carry such profound ideas, and communicate them in ways that are subtle and beautiful, rather than assuming more didactic tones. Lionni did not preach or talk down to children. Whether addressing war in The Alphabet Tree or racism in Nicolas, Where Have You Been?, Lionni prompts thinking on the part of adults and children alike.

Leo Lionni (from the collection of the Lionni family).

After reading Leo Lionni's autobiography, I can see him in all his main characters. In fact, his granddaughter verified this when she said, "And by the way, he was the hero in each of his books. Absolutely. they were all autobiographical. I mean, Frederick and Swimmy, Cornelius, all of those guys, they were him. He never said that, but it's clear to me, that they were very autobiographical."

I see him in Cornelius and in Matthew, even in "Geraldine." Between Worlds offers autobiographical commentary on Leo Lionni's children's books, through which he daily introduces himself to a world of children, who are still saying, after generations, "Nice to meet you, Mr. Lionni."