Thursday, 21 June 2012

Frederick by Leo Lionni

Step aside modern picture book writer/illustrators and pay homage to one of the masters, Leo Lionni. Lionni was an ad man (pre Mad Men era) who in 1959 gave up his New York City career and turned his hand to creating children's books.  He's quoted about this move saying, I reached the conviction that all human acts have social and political consequences....You must feel responsible for every line you draw, for every decision you make.  His strong conviction is a clue to the nature of the characters he created and the gentle, wildly imaginative and abstract books that he wrote for children. One of my favorites has always been 'Frederick' and I'm happy that this title is now known as the second mouse book in our house. 

Frederick lives in a large family of field mice who make their home in an abandoned farm and granary.  They are busy storing food for the winter and we meet Frederick in the midst of this activity.  While the rest of the family is working to gather nuts, grain and corn, Frederick can be found sitting on his own - still, quiet and pensive. The other mice are working their little tails off and naturally question Frederick about his idleness. Frederick responds by saying, 'I do work ... I gather sun rays for the cold dark winter days.'  His family remains unconvinced and ask again what he's doing sitting on his own.  Frederick replies with one of the most beautifully simple lines I've read in a children's book, 'I gather colors.' This response is wholly unsatisfactory and his family continue to press him to explain himself.

When winter comes the mice eat through their stores of food and it's only when resources are depleted that they remember Frederick's contribution.  They ask him to recall the things that he had gathered and he talks them through an imaginative process to feel the warmth of the sun and visualize all the colors of spring.  Lastly, he recites a poem to relieve their minds of the winter boredom and finally he receives the approval he'd been denied but never sought.

To accompany the tale is a collection of marvellous illustrations and collages from Lionni. They feel almost storyboard style in how they capture the action across each two page spread. The shapes are simple yet effective and the use of color captures the essence of each season.

Frederick is a story about being different, being yourself and being accepted for who you are.  It's about nature, imagination and looking at the word that little bit differently from the rest of the crowd.  I'd like to find Frederick a patron or an Arts Council grant and let him get on with following his passions.  He's a very loveable little mouse.

I could go on and on about the merits of Leo Lionni but instead I'll direct you to the Random House website that's packed with information and discoveries Go now!  

'Frederick' was first published in 1967 and is a Caldecott Honor Book.

1 comment:

  1. Can I please join you Lionni fan club? Frederick is such a lovely mouse, and yes his colour collecting is so wonderful. We have a recording of this story - I have no idea from where - it is on cassette tape, and is all hissy - but it is lovely, with perfect music accompanying it. Lionni is one of those authors I'd like to own every book by.