Children's Literature

Biography Leo Lionni



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Leo Lionni penned over thirty children's books. Their combination of whimsical artwork and light lessons have charmed both children and critics for years. Mr. Lionni did not begin writing until he was near retirement age. While it took him time to become an author, it was the career that gave him the most pleasure.

He began life in Watergraafsmeer, a suburb of Amsterdam on May 5, 1910. His father, Luis, was a diamond cutter and his mother, Elisabeth, was  an opera singer.  Leo had found memories of visiting his grandparent's home in Amsterdam. His grandmother, Oma, had a large, bright home and she allowed her grandson to play. He could run and shout without fear of being scolded. In his preschool years Leo learned to speak Dutch and a little German.

In 1915 his father became a certified accountant and the family moved in with Leo's grandparents, the Grossouws, in Amsterdam until a large apartment could be found to house both the family and his father's new business. Art was a part of the Lionnis' life. A painting by Marc Chagall hung in the hall outside of Leo's bedroom. The young boy was fascinated by the piece. The bright colors seemed to draw him into a another world. It was one of many paintings on loan from his Uncle Williem. The gentleman collected artwork and was pleased to help the young family decorate their new apartment.

Leo spoke of the Chagall painting as being the birthplace of his own art career. His Uncle Piet gave him a drawing table that came with some art lesson for his ninth birthday. It was the beginning of a profound interest in drawing and art. His life went along quite normally until his father began to struggle in his career. His parents decided to relocate to America when Leo was twelve. The boy was left with his paternal grandparents in Brussels, Belgium.

He was allowed to explore the large pond on the property owned by his grandparents. His wanderings helped him develop an interest in nature. During the two years he spent in Belgium he learned to speak fluent French and quite a bit of English. He also assembled a radio from a kit. His love of art and historical buildings was heightened as he collected postcards from the Louvre Museum in Paris, France.

He was able to join his parents in the United States at age fourteen. Philadelphia Pennsylvania was a strange place to him but he appreciated all the historical buildings. He also discovered basketball and became quite good at the sport. But they wouldn't remain settled for long. His father had taken a job with the Atlantic Refining Company and was asked to head up their branch located in Genoa, Italy. Before finding a place of residence in the city they stayed at a luxury hotel. For Leo it was a time he grew close to his mother. The two played in the spacious rooms of their suite.

In Italy Leo learned Italian and faced his first real academic challenge. He was used to moving and had been able to adapt to new learning environments. But he had to have private tutoring to prepare him for entry into an Italian high school. Unlike his other schools he carried away few fond memories. The school was designed to prepare him to become a businessman. He did meet his future wife , Nora Maffi, there. At age nineteen he was tired of struggling and skipped his fourth year at the school to audit classes at the University of Zurich in Switzerland

Leo quickly discovered that business was not for him. He wanted to attend a three year film course in Rome. He was away from home for the first time and his new found independence helped him develop his own course. He was fearful of his father's reaction to his not wishing to complete a formal education but he wrote to him anyway. The older Lionni realized that his son's heart rested in the art world and suggested that the youth return home for a time. He could draw, write and study. Leo, much surprised by his father's reaction, complied.

He married Nora in 1932 and to honor his promise to her father took a job with an Italian petroleum company. He worked as head cashier there for five months and was invited to show six of his painting at an exhibition in Savona, Italy. It was the birth of his first son, Manni,that got Leo thinking about finding a career that he would enjoy and allow him to support his young family. He returned his family to Amsterdam where he found employment as a traveling salesman for stationary supplies. But he discovered that he was about to be drafted into the Dutch army and moved to Milan Italy

Once there he completed his studies in economics and earned his PH.d. He continued to struggle in finding a job he enjoyed. He was an architectural critic and even designed and built some houses on his wife's family's land. He worked as photographer and eventually opened his own small design studio. After two years Adolph Hitler came to power and his government's restrictions on ethnic groups worried Leo. His father was Jewish so out of concern for his growing family he moved them. His second son, Paolo, was born in Switzerland. 

Leo came to the United States but was forced to leave his family in Switzerland as they were unable to obtain visas. Leo found work as a graphic artist. His career flourished when he drew over one hundred cartoons to promote the slogan "Never under estimate the power of a woman" for the the Ladies' Home Journal. His family joined him in 1939 and he became a naturalized citizen in 1945. 

His career in advertising flourished. He was the art director for the Ford Motor Company advertising campaign. Later he opened his own graphic art design studio. He was one of the most imaginative graphic artists in the country for the next twenty years. He became part of an exhibit entitled "Family of Man". He traveled with it as it toured the world.

In 1959 he became disenchanted with working for magazines and fell into being an author of children's books. He was traveling by train with his young grandchildren when he was inspired to write Little Blue Little Yellow. The children had become bored on the long ride so he tore a piece of blue and a piece of yellow colored paper from a magazine. He put them on his leather case and began to tell the story of little blue and little yellow. Not only did he entertain his grandchildren but most of the riders within earshot. He turned the book into a story and when a publisher friend came to dinner the book found its way to the public. Leo went on to write and illustrate over thirty more. While he kept an apartment in New York, Leo's primary residence was in Italy as of 1960. He continued to paint and his work enjoyed success in gallerias and exhibitions. 

Leo had come to realize that a person's actions and words had power. His books carried messages as he knew his work had the power to influence. Hitlers' years were not lost on him and he wrote about overcoming prejudice He wanted to help young people embrace a world free of war and hate. Leo Lionni lived life and felt that it was to be enjoyed. His pure enthusiasm for the world is displayed in his writing and art work.

In the late 1990's the beloved author fell ill with Parkinson's disease. Despite the progressive illness Leo tried to live life to the fullest until his death on October 11, 1999 at age 89. He lives on through his words and paintings as they bring joy to millions across the globe.

More about this author: Cindy Abbate

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