Lionni's fables show kids how to be themselves
Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:00am
My daughters and I fell in love with Leo Lionni when we spent the summer in Canada. For this, I must thank a reader, who recommended Lionni as one of her children's favourite authors.
We last visited my parents in Canada three years ago. At that time, my elder daughter was 18 months old and starting to become interested in listening to read-alouds. Rather than load our luggage with the books that were in her repertoire of daily reading. I viewed our holiday as an opportunity to introduce her to new titles.
I ordered books from a Canadian online bookstore for delivery to my parents' home. These included boxed sets of Sandra Boynton's silly board books, plus Polar Bear, Polar Bear and Panda Bear, Panda Bear, the companion books to Bill Martin Jnr's Brown Bear, Brown Bear, What Do You See?, which my daughter already knew well.
This summer, my online order comprised solely of Leo Lionni stories: Little Blue and Little Yellow for my younger daughter, and Frederick and His Friends for my eldest. The latter is a collection of stories that is subtitled Four Favourite Fables.
Fables use animals with human qualities to teach a moral lesson. In this collection, two of the stories feature mice, and two of the stories feature fish. The stories are visually captivating for young and old readers, and the moral lessons are about being happy with who you are. They don't focus on the perils of failing to lead a virtuous life, in the way that Aesop's Fables do.
All four stories were written in the 1960s, and use language so rich that my elder daughter asked about a new word every time we reread a story. In Swimmy, Lionni described the eponymous fish as "black as a mussel shell".
I was excited to illustrate this description by showing my daughters some mussels in a cioppino I ordered one night.
In Fish Is Fish, the fish was not any old fish, but a minnow. When he tried to visit land, my elder daughter interrupted me to ask, "Why did the minnow go to a bank?"
I happily paused to explain that this was the slope bordering the pond where the minnow lived, and not the financial institution that she was envisioning.
With a long career as art director of Fortune magazine, Lionni was already established as a graphic art designer when he created a simple story for his grandchildren about a blue dot named Little Blue. The dot's best friend was a yellow dot named Little Yellow.
The story became his first book, Little Blue and Little Yellow. It teaches young children about colours much more beautifully than a typical board book.
Lionni was nearly 50 years old when Little Blue was published. He continued to have a long and fruitful second career writing books for children.
The collection of Lionni fables I have is the 2002 edition, published by Alfred A. Knopf. It contains a note of appreciation by author and illustrator Eric Carle, who is known for The Very Hungry Caterpillar.
I have collected Caterpillar in seven languages (out of an impressive 50 available languages), so I'm embarrassed to admit that I was unfamiliar with Carle's evident mentor until now.
It turns out that Lionni gave Carle his first job in New York, as a graphic designer at the New York Times, and spent a lot of effort encouraging him to become a picture book artist, even though Carle was not then interested in illustrating children's books.
Lionni, a four-time Caldecott Honor winner, was the first children's illustrator to use the collage technique that is now usually associated with Carle.
Martin's Brown Bear, Brown Bear was the first book that Carle illustrated. That started his highly successful career.
I have great hopes that Lionni's books will find renewed popularity among a new generation of children.
Annie Ho is board chairperson of Bring Me A Book Hong Kong, a non-profit organisation devoted to improving children's literacy through reading aloud to them, and providing easy access to the best children's books for underserved communities across Hong Kong.