A gray field mouse named Frederick sits apart from his family. As other mice harvest grains for the winter, he instead gathers intangible supplies: words and images. When the dark winter descends upon the family, Frederick shares beautiful memories, proving that art can be as nourishing as food, and as important as shelter in fostering unity.

So goes the fable of Frederick, one of the most enduring works of children’s literature since its publication in 1967. In many ways, it is also the story of its creator, Leo Lionni, a writer-illustrator who created dozens of picture books and believed individuals can truly change society.

“Every position in space has a meaning of its own,” he wrote in his 1997 autobiography, Between Worlds. “In practical and moral terms, you must feel responsible for every line you draw, for every decision you make.”

How Children's Book Author Leo Lionni Urged His Readers to Be Change Makers
Leo Lionni (1910-1999), Illustration for Frederick, 1967 (Knopf), Collage on paper © Leo Lionni. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the Lionni Family.

Though perhaps best known for his children’s books featuring animals illustrated in collage, Lionni was also an innovative graphic designer, painter, sculptor and teacher. Across his work, he promoted curiosity and creativity, and encouraged people to consider their role in the world.

Lionni associated with a wide swath of creatives, including artist Andy Warhol, designer Paul Rand and architect Buckminster Fuller. He also helped launch many careers, including that of Eric Carle, who also became a renowned children’s book creator. Yet, for most of his life, Lionni worried he wouldn’t be taken seriously in any discipline if it were known he worked in several.

But surveying Lionni’s creative range offers insights into his ability to express his humanitarian values and resonate across generations, says Stephanie Haboush Plunkett, chief curator at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts, where the first major American retrospective on Lionni, “Between Worlds,” opened this November. “Lionni’s children’s books are appreciated by readers and educators, but their outgrowth from his design sensibility and joyful involvement with his family is compelling. Seeing his work contemporaneously reveals the continuous threads that comprise the artist’s journey.”

From paintings to politics

Born in 1910 in the Netherlands, Lionni learned to draw by copying paintings in Amsterdam’s art museums. His bedroom housed a table for making art and jars in which he crafted tiny worlds for pet mice, frogs and snails, among other critters. The contained spaces of the museums’ paintings and his miniature ecosystems provided young Lionni comfort amid the turmoil of World War I. Lionni later related his terrariums to his children’s books as “orderly, predictable alternatives to a chaotic, unmanageable, terrifying universe.”

How Children's Book Author Leo Lionni Urged His Readers to Be Change Makers
Leo Lionni (1910-1999), World on View, n.d., Poster © Leo Lionni. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the Lionni Family.
How Children's Book Author Leo Lionni Urged His Readers to Be Change Makers
Leo Lionni (1910-1999), Flying objects (personal piece), n.d., Painting © Leo Lionni. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the Lionni Family.

In 1922, Lionni’s parents immigrated to the United States, leaving their son under his grandparents’ care in Brussels. There, Lionni’s artistic literacy expanded under the influence of two art-collecting uncles. He learned how modern artists like Wassily Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Piet Mondrian challenged traditional thinking through their work.

Lionni later reunited with his parents, and the family moved to Italy, then under Fascist control. One day, Lionni saw some Fascists burning books and destroying a piano. Suddenly aware of his responsibilities for the world in which he was entering as an adult, Lionni immersed in literature banned by the Fascists as Communist propaganda. He refused to perform the Fascist salute at school and was flunked—twice. Lionni also befriended Nora Maffi, whom he later married and whose father, Fabrizio Maffi, was an Italian Communist Party founder. Before long, Lionni identified as a Communist and aspired to join the Futurist artists in disdaining bourgeois values. Eventually, however, he rejected Futurism for its ties to Fascist aesthetics.

“I probably owe it to my first encounters with the political realities of Fascism and Nazism that early in my adult life I reached the conviction that all human acts have social and political consequences,” Lionni reflected in his autobiography. “If this was not an easy principle to accept and live by, its natural corollary, responsibility, was even more demanding.”

Creating with conscience

Lionni carried this sense of responsibility into his design career, seizing opportunities to express socially meaningful ideas. As the threat of World War II loomed over Europe, it became increasingly difficult for Lionni, who was half-Jewish, to stay in Italy. Lionni moved to the U.S. and took a job in Philadelphia designing for the advertising agency N.W. Ayer in 1939. One day, he noticed a discarded line of copy: “Never underestimate the power of a woman!” He transformed the campaign idea into roughly a hundred cartoons that he produced for over six years as advertisements for the Ladies’ Home Journal.

Lionni’s last cartoon for the campaign, in which he juxtaposed Adolf Hitler with the Statue of Liberty, used artistic techniques to diminish fascism while elevating freedom. Hitler is drawn in rumpled clothing, surrounded by white space, and in eye-level perspective. In contrast, the Statue of Liberty’s graceful lines are cropped to suggest a height too great to be captured entirely on the page, and to uplift the viewer’s gaze.

How Children's Book Author Leo Lionni Urged His Readers to Be Change Makers
Leo Lionni (1910-1999), Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman, 1941. Advertising illustration for Ladies' Home Journal, N.W. Ayer Advertising Agency. Courtesy of the Lionni Family

This cartoon is one of the few obvious reflections of Lionni’s anti-fascism. “Lionni didn’t express his political views overtly a lot in his designs,” says design critic Steven Heller, who has written or edited more than 200 books on graphic design history. “It was always more tacit.”

Instead, Lionni was outspoken in other ways. In Posters, a collection of commentaries from designers on their trade published in 1952, he emphasized a need for “the courage to talk a human language.” When Lionni became editor of the graphic design journal Print in 1955, he wrote articles prompting designers to embrace their cultural responsibility. In presentations and discussions, he urged creatives in other fields to consider their societal impacts.

“Lionni connected with others through his art,” says Heller, who attended social gatherings Lionni hosted. “I think creativity for him was a way of speaking a language, of talking with other people.”

Not everyone, however, was receptive to the issues Lionni raised.

Controversy and censorship

From 1948 to 1960, Lionni was the art director for Fortune magazine, then within magazine magnate Henry Luce’s Time-Life empire. While working for Luce, Lionni was invited to design “Unfinished Business,” a secondary U.S. pavilion for the 1958 Brussels World’s Fair. Conceived by Luce in collaboration with the State Department, “Unfinished Business” would showcase domestic problems like racial inequality to pre-empt criticisms from other countries. But several Southern senators objected to the concept, and weeks after opening, “Unfinished Business” was closed. The publicly stated reason—bad design—did not align with the favorable survey reports of Lionni’s work.

How Children's Book Author Leo Lionni Urged His Readers to Be Change Makers
"Unfinished Business" exterior photograph, 1958. United States pavilion design for the 1958 Brussels Expo, designed by Leo Lionni and sponsored by Fortune. Courtesy of the Lionni Family

One year later, Lionni made his first children’s book, Little Blue and Little Yellow, in which a blue dot and a yellow dot embrace, forming a single green dot. They happily play together, but their parents neither recognize nor accept them. Only after the dots return to their original colors do the adults understand and joyfully gather to create new colors. Lionni’s deeper message is plain: Children can lead important social change.

“It seems to me a logical progression for Lionni to have gone directly from designing the World’s Fair pavilion to making a picture book,” says Leonard S. Marcus, historian and author of Pictured Worlds: Masterpieces of Children’s Book Art by 101 Essential Illustrators From Around the World, in which he featured Lionni. “He was thinking about what the people of the future would do. Right away he recognized children’s books are not trivial. They can encourage young people to think.”

Years after Lionni’s death in 1999, his granddaughter Annie Lionni noticed an uncanny likeness between a page in Little Blue and Little Yellow and a photograph in the “Unfinished Business” pavilion. The photograph featured a racially diverse group of seven children playing Ring Around the Rosie. In Little Blue and Little Yellow, seven differently colored dots are shown playing the same game in a similar layout. Likely, as Annie suggested in Publishers Weekly about her discovery, “Leo’s stories were his way of finishing his business and striving to make a better world.”

Lionni went on to create more than 40 books for children, four of which won Caldecott Honors for excellence in illustration. Many are now beloved classics in libraries and homes around the world. Yet, like Lionni’s pavilion, several of his books have roused controversy. In 2015, the mayor of Venice banned several of Lionni’s books, including Little Blue and Little Yellow, for potentially threatening traditional viewpoints.

Some fables by Lionni suggest his political opinions most clearly when read in context of their creation. Tillie and the Wall tells the tale of a mouse who, curious about what lies beyond a wall, digs under it. When she emerges on the other side, she discovers other friendly mice. Published in 1989, months before the Berlin Wall fell, the story appears to be Lionni’s call for unity.

“Lionni told stories that were simple but not trivial,” says Marcus. “I think he grew up feeling that art could contribute to improving the world and should be valued from childhood onward. He restlessly sought new ways to express the theme of his work: the relationship of the individual to society.”

Lionni often explored this theme with characters who serve others using creativity. Published in 1968, the height of the Vietnam War, The Alphabet Tree is about a tree full of alphabet letters that join to form words. A caterpillar remarks that this is not enough. When the letters ask why, the caterpillar replies, “Because you must say something important.”

How Children's Book Author Leo Lionni Urged His Readers to Be Change Makers
Leo Lionni (1910-1999), Illustration of The Alphabet Tree, 1968 (Knopf), Mixed media on paper © Leo Lionni. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the Lionni Family.

“That’s one of the most astonishing lines in all picture books,” Marcus says. “It feels urgent, but not didactic. There’s a call to action, yet it’s cloaked in a fantasy world, so it doesn’t come across as heavy-handed.”

The letters decide to band together to spell “PEACE ON EARTH AND GOODWILL TOWARD ALL MEN.” The caterpillar announces he will take this message to the president, and he carries the sentence away on his back. As he exits the spread, the final visible word is: PEACE.

For most picture books, sales diminish over time. But Annie, who manages the business side of her grandfather’s children’s books, says sales have notably increased over the years. Lionni’s books are popular today in the United States, Asia and Europe.

“Leo’s books appeal across ages and through time,” says Annie. “They deal with a relationship between self and community, so they translate to everybody, everywhere. I think this is the reason they don’t fade away.”

Between worlds and beyond borders

“Between Worlds” at the Norman Rockwell Museum is co-curated by Plunkett, Marcus and Heller, with close involvement from Lionni’s granddaughter Annie. The exhibition, which Marcus initiated after having conversations with Annie, spans Lionni’s graphic designs; children’s book illustrations; and personal works of painting, sculpture and printmaking.

How Children's Book Author Leo Lionni Urged His Readers to Be Change Makers
Leo Lionni (1910-1999), Illustration for Matthew's Dream, 1991 (Knopf), Mixed media collage © Leo Lionni. All rights reserved. Courtesy of the Lionni Family.

“There was something special in Lionni’s ability to integrate his creativity,” says Heller. “The exhibition shows what a holistic, Renaissance creator he was and how his imagination and talents spanned at least three acts of his play.”

Lionni died in 1999 at the age of 89. In his final years, he continued to create and connect with friends, despite worsening symptoms of Parkinson’s disease. The exhibition, along with 170 pieces of Lionni’s art, includes a stockpile of paper legs, tails and ears left in his workspace—parts of mice he had prepared for collages.

Although the stories of those would-be mice may remain forever unknown, the characters Lionni did bring to life in his books are eternally alive, and their lessons ever fresh. With the current rise of book censorship, the issues Lionni explored throughout his career—how to express yourself and contribute to your community—are particularly pertinent today. As Frederick, his storytelling mouse, reminds us: When shared, art can uplift and connect us.

Annie hopes the exhibition will travel around the world, so that more people can share in the delights and lessons of her grandfather’s work.

“Leo’s lessons were pretty basic,” she says, “and I think the world needs a little guidance right now on really simple stuff. He helps people think about our roles in our communities. That’s important for everyone.”

​​“Between Worlds: The Art and Design of Leo Lionni” is on view now through May 27, 2024, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

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