Leo Lionni: Biography & Books

Instructor: Beth Hendricks

Beth holds a master's degree in integrated marketing communications, and has worked in journalism and marketing throughout her career.

Leo Lionni didn't just write books for children, but books for the child in all of us. In this lesson, we'll learn more about this immigrant illustrator and author's life, and review a few of his most popular and celebrated works.

Who Was Leo Lionni?

Though classified as a children's book author, renowned writer and illustrator Leo Lionni had his own thoughts about being grouped into that company: ''The fact is that I don't make books for children at all. I make them for that part of us, of myself and of my friends, which has never changed, which is still a child.''

Lionni's Childhood

Leo Lionni seemed destined for a career in the arts almost since birth. Born in Amsterdam in 1910 to an opera-singer mother and a diamond-cutter father, Lionni developed his own appreciation for the arts at a young age. He was also an animal and nature lover, which today you can see reflected in his books like Swimmy and Frederick.

His Uncle Piet, an artist and architect, took Lionni under his wing and helped him further develop his artistic abilities. He spent a lot of time in museums, learning to draw from the great works and statues around him. Another of Lionni's uncles was an art collector, so the future writer and illustrator spent a lot of time surrounded by great pieces from celebrated artists.

Lionni Through the Years

Lionni's parents moved to Philadelphia when he was 12, leaving the boy with his grandparents for two years before bringing him to America. Shortly after, the entire family relocated to Italy. He shied away from studies in arts, eventually earning a doctorate in economics.

While in Italy, Lionni met and married Norah Maffi, and the pair eventually had two children, Louis and Paolo. He did some writing about architecture for a European magazine before settling into a job as a graphic designer.

Now with a family of his own, Lionni returned to the United States. He went to work at an advertising agency in Philadelphia before assuming similar positions at the Olivetto Corporation of America and Fortune magazine. He helped to develop the famous ad campaign ''Never Underestimate the Power of a Woman'' for the Ladies Home Journal. He later relocated to New York and opened his own office to allow more flexibility in his work, attracting clients like Time magazine and Sports Illustrated. All along, he was also creating his own art, which was featured in galleries throughout America, Europe and Asia.

In 1982, Lionni was diagnosed with Parkinson's disease, but he kept working in drawing, illustrating and teaching. He passed away in October 1999 in Italy.

His Writing Career

By 1959, Lionni had started to pursue a second career as an author and illustrator of children's books. His first story, Little Blue and Little Yellow, was a happy accident, originally written to entertain his grandchildren on a train trip. That book would be the start of a long and celebrated career. Lionni has a bibliography of more than 40 children's books.

Many of his works employ the use of collage, combination of colors and textures that make his images more appealing to children. Reviewers like School Library Journal have referred to Lionni's collages as ''bold'' and ''sumptuous.'' Lionni was also a fan of building morals, or life lessons, for his readers into his stories.


Lionni's books, in addition to being loved by readers, also earned him many awards and accolades. Here are a few select titles:

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