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 Picture Books Author of the Month
Leo Lionni
Leo Lionni
5 May 1910 -- 12 October 1999

Leonard Lionni  was born on May 5, 1910 in Watergraafsmeer, a suburb of Amsterdam, Holland. He was the only child of Louis Lionni, a diamond cutter who later turned his sights to being an accountant, and Elisabeth Grussouw Lionni, an opera singer. Since he was born in the Netherlands, he naturally grew up speaking Dutch, but he also learned to speak a bit of German while he was still quite young.

The Lionni family remained in Watergraafsmeer until Lionni was four-years-old. He had few memories of of his time there, but some of his fondest revolved around the family's monthly visit to see his grandparents, the Grossouws, in Amsterdam. "I loved Oma's [grandmother's] house. It was so light, spacious, and gay, and I could run around the living room, climbing on anything, and yell as loud as I wanted without ever being scolded" [1]

In the Spring of 1915, the Lionnis moved to Amsterdam. They lived with the Grossouws until they could find a house of their own. That was the year that Louis Lionni became a certified public accountant. This meant the family had to find a large apartment that could serve as a home and an office for Lionni's father.

Art was very important to the Lionni family, and their new apartment was a showcase of some beautiful pieces. There was a painting by Marc Chagall that hung outside Lionni's bedroom that had a particularly strong effect on him. "It was a happy canvas with cheerful colors that seemed to flutter like ribbons in an icy wind...It was altogether another world, where anything could happen and everything was unexpected -- a noisy busy world, close by and touchable. Perhaps it was the secret birthplace of all the stories I ever wrote, painted, or imagined." [1] That painting, along with many of the others in the apartment, came on loan from his father's uncle Willem, who collected works by a number of notable painters of that time.

Lionni began his own art career when his Uncle Piet, an architect, gave him an art table for his ninth birthday. The gift also included some lessons in drawing techniques. Like most children his age, his interests were not limited to art.

When he was 12-years-old, Lioonni's parents traveled to America in hopes of giving a boost to his father's failing career. He was left with his grandparents in Brussels, Belgium. During this time, he continued his growing interest in nature with the help of a large pond that his grandparents owned. He also began collecting postcards of some of the masterpieces held in the Louvre Museum in Paris, assembled his first radio from a kit, became fluent in French, and learned a good deal of English.

After living with his grandparents for two years, he was able to join his parents in the United States. They lived in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Lionni found many things about his new home to be different and strange. As he settled in, though, he found that Philadelphia had a lot to offer with its historical buildings and time for playing basketball.

A year later, Lionni's family had to move again. His father, who was now working for the Atlantic Refining Company, had been asked to manage the company's Italian branch in Genoa. At first, the family stayed in a luxury hotel. He and his would spend many afternoons chasing each other in the empty lobby and sitting rooms. These were some of the fondest times he remembered spending with his mother.

Eventually, the family found an apartment in a quiet area of the city. Lionni had his own room, which his parents had allowed him to decorate and furnish himself. Besides this new freedom, moving to Italy had allowed him to learn his fifth language, Italian.

Because his family moved so often, Lionni attended a number of different schools in the various countries in which he lived. He had fond memories of most of them. Upon moving to Genoa, Lionni found himself with his greatest academic challenge. He spent ten months with a tutor preparing for the entrance exams to attend an Italian high school. He was finally admitted to a four-year program at the Intituto Tecnico Superiore Vittorio Emanule Terzo. This school would train him to become a licensed businessman. While he usually did very well with his studies, Lionni struggled at the new school. The only good thing he remembers about the school is that it was where he met his future wife, Nora Maffi.

After three years of struggling in school, Lionni decided to skip his fourth year and audit courses at the University of Zurich in Switzerland. He was 19-years-old, and this new path allowed him to experience new-found freedom and independence. At the same time, he had no desire to be a businessman. After a few months at the university, Lionni sent his father a letter with a proposal. He wanted to attend a 3-year course in film direction in Rome. Since Louis Lionni realized how much Leo wanted to be an artist, he came to Zurich and made a proposition of his own. He wanted his son to come home and think things over until the following fall, and to spend that time painting and visiting with friends. "It was ironic that it should have been Father who made a suggestion that I had never dared consider, certain that he would violently oppose my not completing some kind of formal education, no mater what," noted Lionni years later. Lionni did end up returning home and spending the next several months waiting, thinking, reading, and writing.

Lionni married Nora Maffi in December, 1932. They eventually had two sons together, Mannie and Paolo. A few months after his wedding, Lionni sought to fulfill a promise to Nora's father by obtaining a real job with a position at Societa Foltzer, an Italian petroleum company. He was an assistant cashier at the corporate headquarters. He worked there for five months, during which he received an invitation to show six of his paintings at an exhibition in Savona, Italy.

With the arrival of his first son, Lionni began to think about making some major changes in his life. The first decision he made was to leave his position at the petroleum company. Lionni also decided that it was time to return to Amsterdam. Leo and his family moved to the city in 1933. He found a job as a traveling salesman of stationery supplies. He would have stayed with this job if he had not discovered that he was scheduled to be drafted into the Dutch army. Rather than serving in the military, Lionni returned to Milan, and his family joined him a few months later.

After his return to Italy in 1934, Lionni continued to struggle with finding a career he enjoyed. He became an architecture critic for Casabella, a monthly architectural magazine, and even designed and built a few houses on the Maffi family's land. He also worked as an architectural photographer and designed print advertisements and window displays for the Italian confectionary company Motta. At this time, Lionni resumed his study of economics and earned a Ph.D. from the University of Genoa in 1935.

In 1936, Lionni opened a small design studio, where he worked for two years. The Nazi Party took control of Germany in 1938, and had enacted a number of restrictive laws under Adolf Hitler. These laws applied to ethnic groups Hitler believed were inferior, such as Jews. Lionni, whose father was Jewish, became alarmed at these developments. He and his wife traveled to Switzerland to have their second child, Paolo. Lionni quickly headed to United States . He became a naturalized citizen in 1945. He had hoped to bring his family over as soon as he established himself in the US, but his wife and two sons were unable to get visas. Lionni's family would have to remain in Switzerland a while longer.

Lionni, who was living in New York City, was unscuccessful in getting a job. His luck changed when he met the art director of N.W. Ayer, one of the largest ad agencies in the United States. He was offered a job as an assistant art director in Ayer's Philadelphia office. A short time later, his career took off when he was involved with a slogan for the Ladies' Home Journal: "Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman!" Lionni helped bring the slogan to life by drawing almost 100 cartoons that appeared in leading magazines across the country.

Lionni's wife and children were finally able to get visas to join him in mid-1939. They were able to leave Italy before it officially entered World War II. Thanks to his new job, he could afford to not only pay their fare, but also get a nice apartment. He would stay with Ayer until 1947. During his years with the company, he was head art director for big accounts such as Ford Motor Company.

As his advertising career flourished, Lionni continued to work on his painting. He was honored with his first solo exhibit in the mid-1940's. Once his family arrived, he opened his own graphic design studio in New York. He spent the next twenty years as one of the most creative talents in the graphic design field. As part of this, he became involved with an art exhibit called the "Family of Man". He was the director of the exhibit when it started at the Museum of Modern Art in New York and continued in this role as it toured the globe.

At about the same time, Lionni became the art director for Fortune magazine and edited a stylish trade magazine entitled Print. By 1959, he had decided that he was not enjoying this career choice either. He vowed to quit working for the magazines. That was also the year that he fell into being a children's book writer and illustrator. It all started with an idea he came up with on a train trip with his young grandchildren. That story was Little Blue and Little Yellow, which proved to be a success both with his grandchildren and with the public. Lionni ended up producing more than 30 children's books before his death in 1999. They have proved popular with readers and critics alike.

Beginning in the 1960's, Lionni lived primarily in Italy, but kept an apartment in New York City. He continued painting even with his literary success. His art has been shown in numerous galleries and museums around the world.

In the late 1990's, Lionni announced that he had developed Parkinson's Disease, a progressive neurological disorder that affects the nerves that carry electrical signals within the brain. In his final years, he suffered from some of the common symptoms of the disease, including shaky hands and difficulty walking. While it was not easy, Lionni attempted to live his final years to the fullest. He died on October 11, 1999 at the age of 89 at his home, "Porcignano", near Radda in the Chianti district in Italy.

Information for this biography was taken from:
1) Biography Today Author Series, Volume 6; Omnigraphics, Inc.: Detroit, Mich., 1995.    
2) Tracy Chevalier (ed.). Twentieth Century Children Writers; St. James Press: New York, 1989.
3) Anne Commire (ed.).  Something About the Author, #22; Gale Research Company: Detroit, Mich., 1977.
4) Leo Lionni. Between Worlds: The Autobiography of Leo Lionni; Alfred A. Knopf: New York, 1997.
5) "Leo Lionni" Teachers@Random--Resource Center: Author Bios;http://www.randomhouse.com/teachers/fc/rc_ab_lli.html.
6) "Leo Lionni, 89, dies; children's book author", Providence Journal-Bulletin; October 17, 1999.
7) "Leo(nard) Lionni, 1910-1999", Gale Literary Databases: Contemporary Authors; http://www.galenet.com.

E-Lionni Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse (1969) -- Alexander the mouse makes friends with Willy, a toy mouse, and wants to be like him until he discovers that Willy is going to be thrown away.

E-Lionni A Color of His Own (1975) -- A little chameleon is distressed because he doesn't have his own color like other animals.

E-LIO  Cornelius: A Fable (1983) -- Cornelius, a crocodile who walks upright, sees things no crocodile has ever seen before.

E-Lionni An Extraordinary Egg (1994) -- Jessica the frog befriends the animal who hatches from an egg she has brought home.  She thinks it is a chicken, but what is it really?

E-Lionni Fish is Fish (1970) -- When his friend, the tadpole, becomes a frog and leaves the pond to explore the world, the little fish decides that maybe he doesn't have to remain there either.

E-Lionni/E-P-LIO Frederick (1967) -- Frederick the poet mouse stores up something special for the long winter.

E-LIO  The Greentail Mouse (1973) -- The mice become so involved in their Mardi Gras masquerade they forget that it is all in fun.

E-LIO  In the Rabbitgarden (1975) -- Despite the old rabbit's warning, two young rabbits find a way to get apples from the apple tree without being caught by the fox.

E-LIO  Inch By Inch (1960) -- An inchworm proves his value to a group of birds by measuring what makes each of them unique.

E-LIO  It's Mine! (1986) -- Three young rabbits who insist that "It's Mine!" are taught the value of sharing by an old toad.

E-LIO  Let's Make Rabbits: A Fable (1982) -- Two rabbits made with a pencil and scissors become real after eating a real carrot.

E-Lionni Little Blue and Little Yellow: A Story for Pippo and Ann and Other Children (1959) -- Little blue and little yellow hug each other so tight that they become green, but what happens to little blue and little yellow?

E-LIO  Nicholas, Where Have You Been? (1987) -- Mishap turns to adventure as a young mouse learns that all birds aren't the enemies he thought they were.

E-LIO  Pezzetino (1975) -- Little Pezzetino is so small that he is convinced that he must be a piece of somebody else.  A wise man helps him discover the truth.

E-LIO  Six Crows: A Fable (1988) -- An owl helps a farmer and some crows reach a compromise over the rights to the wheat crop.

E-Lionni/E-P-LIO Swimmy (1953) -- A little black fish in a school of red fish figures out a way of protecting them all from their natural enemies.

E-LIO  Theodore and the Talking Mushroom (1971) -- The blue mushroom says only one strange word, but Theodore the mouse convinces his friends that it means nice things about him.

"Leo Lionni" Teachers@Random--Resource Center: Author Bios (http://www.randomhouse.com/teachers/fc/rc_ab_lli.html) -- This site gives biographical information about Lionni as well as a piece written by him about how he gets his inspiration for his stories.

"Leo(nard) Lionni, 1910-1999", Gale Literary Databases: Contemporary Authors (http://www.galenet.com) -- A summary of some of his major works is included in this source on Lionni's life. 

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