Simple Beauty: Leo Lionni

Leo Lionni books were some of my favorites as a kid. Lionni stories are deceptively simple fables always involving animals and an appreciation for the magic and wonderment of nature. Thumbing through these stories again reminds me of how stunningly beautiful the illustrations are.

Every story has its own distinct style of illustration as well. For instance, in Swimmy, the story of a fish searching for his own place in the world, explores the beauty if the ocean. As a result, the illustrations make use of wet paint applications.

In contrast, for The Biggest House in the World, which tells the story of a snail who’s insatiable desire for a bigger and bigger shell spirals out of control, Lionni employs a more sharp, smooth use of pencil.

Then, of course, there’s Frederick, the story of a mouse who, instead of collecting grains, corn, and other supplies for winter, instead collects “colors… for winter is grey,” and words “for the winter days are long and many, and we will run out of things to say.” This is all, of course, much to the chagrin of his fellow mice. But when winter rolls along and the food is long gone, the mice turn to Frederick for his “supplies.”

The illustrations use paper to highlight the colors and simple beauty that Frederick sees around him. I see this story as a testament to the importance of art and culture- it’s just as essential as food and shelter to a community. Looking at it now, this story may even be one of the reasons I became interested in being an artist at such a young age. Just as Frederick did, Leo Lionni’s stories remind us all that our world doesn’t just provide us with the basic necessities of life that feed the body, but with a profound beauty that feeds the soul.

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