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The Life Of Inch By Inch Author Leo Lionni

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If you have read any books that Leo Lionni wrote and illustrated, you will know what I mean when I say that they are more works of art than children’s stories. The author received Caldecott Honours awards and other prestigious prizes in recognition of his talent that no doubt was shaped by a childhood spent in three very different countries.

Leo’s creative output was prolific, and he did not limit himself to children’s books. He wrote and illustrated books for adults, worked with other artistic mediums, and even wrote and performed one-man shows. His is a life worth learning more about.

Childhood and Marriage

Born on 5 May 1910 in Amsterdam to an opera singer mother and an accountant father, Leo Lionni and his family did not spend much time in the Netherlands before they moved to the United States. They lived in Philadelphia for two years, where Leo started high school.

Part of the way through Leo’s schooling, his father was transferred to Italy. The family moved with him, and that was where Leo completed high school, and made his debut and established his reputation as an artist with avant-garde and futurism paintings between 1931 and 1939. He obtained an economics degree at the University of Genoa in 1935. After his graduation, Leo turned his attention away from futurism and avant-garde, and instead focused on visual content for advertising. His classical children’s books were yet to come.

In addition to being the year in which Leo Lionni made his name on the Italian art scene, 1931 was also when he married Nora Maffi. Nora’s father was none other than Fabrizio Maffi, the man who founded Italy’s Community Party. The couple would go on to have two sons, three grandchildren and seven great-grandchildren.

Return to the US

In 1939, the year that saw the outbreak of the Second World War, Leo Lionni returned to Philadelphia with wife and children. He knew he did not want to work as an artist, and so started working in advertising.

Andy Warhol, Saul Steinberg, Willem de Kooning, Alexander Calder, and Fernand Léger were among the notable artists from whom Leo commissioned art. The quality of his work was obvious, and it attracted some big names. Among his key accounts were motor vehicle manufacturers, Chrysler Plymouth and Ford Motors.

In 1948, the future children’s book writer and illustrator started working as Fortune magazine’s art director. He also did private work, and he worked as Olivetti’s design director. Leo also designed a catalogue for the Museum of Modern Art.

To Italy and Writing Books for Children

After more than a decade as an art director and designer, Leo Lionni and his wife relocated to Italy in 1960, and it was then that his career as a writer and illustrator of classical children’s books really took off.

Leo’s first book, Little Blue and Little Yellow, was published in 1959. He was inspired to write it when he cut out blue and yellow circles to illustrate a story he told his grandchildren on the train one day.

Inch By Inch, published in 1960, is a story about an inchworm who boasts of his ability to measure just about anything put in front of him. Much to his fright, a nightingale puts him to the test – and if the worm fails, he will become the bird’s next meal. The classical children’s book won the 1961 Caldecott Honour as well as the 1962 Lewis Carroll Shelf Award.

The Caldecott Honour was bestowed on Leo again in 1964 for Swimmy, in 1968 for Frederick, and 1970 for Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse. 1965 saw him receive the Deutscher Jugendliteraturpreis. Over his career, Leo wrote more than 40 books for children.

The Artist and Teacher

Leo Lionni also was an artist who drew, painted, did photography, and sculpted. One of his most famous works for adults is 1978’s Parallel Botany. The book is the English translation of La botanica parallela, first published in Italian in 1976. A collection of charcoal or pencil illustrations as well as photographs, it is something of a catalogue of plants that exist only in the imagination. Parallel Botany is a glorious combination of the meanings of plant names, plant descriptions, myths, and travel stories. What’s more, Leo wove scientific and historical facts into the text.

Leo managed to find the time between adults’ and children’s books, creating art, and teaching posts held in the US and in India, to write and perform one-man shows in Asia, Europe, the Middle East, and the US. A man with seemingly boundless energy, he continued to produce art almost until the day he died.

Leo Lionni passed away at his Tuscan home on 11 October 1999. He was 89 years old, and certainly had lived life to the full.

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