Worth the Candle

Frederick By Leo Lionni Cover Image
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ISBN: 9780394826141
Published: Dragonfly Books - April 12th, 1973

Barbara Kingsolver's latest bestseller was Animal, Vegetable, Miracle, about her family's year of eating locally in Kentucky. One of the book's virtues was that it was completely upfront about the main drawback to eating local: Hunger in winter. The sunny August that overruns with corn and zucchini gives way to the frozen January when the family is eating potatoes and apples from basement cold storage. And unless the family has been really diligent, the roots and the home-canned tomatoes can run out in February. Kids today, accustomed to seeing fresh peaches and sugar snap peas year round in their Trader Joes and Safeways, may have a hard time understanding a meager season. But when their grandparents were children, the fable about the ant and the grasshopper needed no explication.

As a result of our prosperity, the little poet hero of Frederick may actually encounter less eye-rolling skepticism than he did when it was published in 1967. The dreamy-eyed field mouse is one of five "chatty" siblings who live on a farm that has been abandoned. Eying the empty granary, they begin to gather corn and wheat and nuts for the winter. Except for Frederick, who doesn't appear to be pulling his weight.

When his brothers question him, Frederick replies that he's gathering of the sun's rays and the meadow's colors; his job is the stockpiling of a mind. Sure enough, snow comes and the mice nibble though their stores. "It was cold in the [stone] wall and no one felt like chatting." Frederick then is called upon to bring out his supplies-and they are descriptions of sun and wildflowers that make the mice feel warm and joyful. He also composes a transcendent poem about the seasons, a wee creation myth to assure his brothers that all is right with the world, no matter how cold their feet.

Frederick's case for the Poet's worth is bolstered by the artistic genius of his creator, Leo Lionni. His economical collage style (often imitated, seldom matched) was as thoroughly modern and witty as the graphic design that first made him famous. A designer for Olivetti, Fortune magazine and many others, Lionni led one of the great 20th-century lives and wrote about it in a spell-binding autobiography, Between Worlds. A Dutch-born child of an accountant and an opera singer, he was fluent in five languages before he was 20. The dozens of children's books that are his main claim to fame a decade after his death (including Inch by Inch, A color of his own , Swimmy, and Tillie and the Wall) were created after he became a grandfather. Before he retired to concentrate on children's lit, he designed the catalog (still in print) of the landmark photo exhibit, The Family of Man.

Frederick's stirring defense for the utility of Art has long kept Frederick a favorite among the chattering classes. It's not the most subtle book, nor the one you want to read to the kids when they're refusing to co-operate with chores. But it remains a go-to book for when you want to explain that mice-and men-do not live by bread alone. Woody Allen famously quipped that there must frequently also be a beverage. Leo Lionni says, with all sincerity, that there must be bread and roses-and stanzas, too.