Children’s book author Leo Lionni died in Chianti, Italy on this date in 1999. He was born in 1910 in the Netherlands; his father was a Sephardic Jewish diamond cutter, his mother a concert singer, his uncle an art collector who stored many paintings in Lionni’s childhood home. After living in four different countries (and learning four different languages), Lionni came to the U.S. in 1939 and found success as an influential graphic designer and art director for several ad agencies and magazines. In 1960, he returned to Italy and began writing and illustrating children’s books, using collage as his primary medium. His first book, Little Blue and Little Yellow, was created almost by accident, as a story that he wove to keep his young grandchildren entertained on a trip. Many of his stories are fables, teaching a moral lesson. Among his forty or so books are three Caldicott Medal winners and such classics as Swimmy, about small fish organizing to chase away predatory bigger fish (named by the National Education Association as one of the top 100 books for teachers); Frederick, about a poet mouse (also listed by the NEA), Fish Is Fish, Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse, and Tillie and the Wall. Lionni’s leftwing politics were shaped by his lifelong relationship with Nora Maffi, who became his wife; her father was one of the founders of the Italian Communist Party, and was imprisoned by the Fascists in 1925.
“Rembrandt, Van Gogh, Mondrian, design, architecture, even music were one big mood to me. Except for brief periods of artisan enthusiasm, I have denied cultural hierarchies. Ancient art is as important to me as contemporary art. Art is as important as design.” —Leo Lionni