• Happy Birthday Babette Cole (Dr. Dog, Princess Smartypants).
  • It’s the birthdate of Robert M. McClung (1916-2006), author of Lost Wild America: The Story of Our Extinct and Vanishing Wildlife and The True Adventures of Grizzly Adams.
  • Also born on this day was Marie Laveau (1801-1881), a famous New Orleans voodoo queen. Read Voodoo Queen: The Spirited Lives of Marie Laveau by Martha Ward.
  • The first Negro League All-Star Game is held in Chicago’s Comiskey Park on this day in 1933. Read We Are The Ship: The Story of the Negro League Baseball by Kadir Nelson.
  • It’s Sewing Machine Day! On this day in 1846 Elias Howe patented the sewing machine. Read Queen of Inventions: How The Sewing Machine Changed The World by Laurie Carlson.
  • Ellis Island Historical Site in New York opens to the public in 1990, providing access to the starting point of many families’ American Journey. Read I Was Dreaming to Come to America: Memories from the Ellis Island Oral History Project by Veronica Lawlor, Coming to America: The Story of Immigration by Betsy Maestro, illustrated by Susannah Ryan, and When Jesse Came Across The Sea by Amy Hest, illustrated by P. J. Lynch.

September has been set aside as a month to “Be Kind to Authors and Editors.” On the Almanac, I could use that as my moto 365 days of the year. Authors and editors are the people who make our best books possible, who work to provide quality content for children, and they deserve kindness and praise every day of the year.

I have always been amazed that creators of books, people who could consider themselves competitors, show amazing kindness to one another. A graphic artist and designer, Leo Lionni not only made fabulous books like Swimmy, but also cared about others who wanted to work in the field.

Lionni was born in Holland, the product of a mixed religious marriage, Christian and Jewish. His family moved frequently during his younger years—and by the time they moved to Italy, young Leo had mastered five languages. He left Europe in 1938 and managed to get his wife and children out right before Hitler invaded Poland. As someone devoted to the fine arts and graphic arts, Lionni worked in the advertising industry for a variety of clients, including the Museum of Modern Art, where he designed one of the great books of the era, The Family of Man. Eventually, he settled into a job as Art Director of Fortune magazine.

His children’s book career came about by accident. One day he was attempting to amuse his grandchildren, Pippo and Annie, on a train by tearing out scraps from Life magazine telling the story of “Little Blue and Little Yellow,” which he invented on the spot. When one of his friends, Fabio Coen, came to dinner, Fabio saw the book and said he’d like to publish it.

Lionni began to craft a series of books, using cut-paper collage, which explored issues important to him. In Swimmy, a Caldecott Honor Book, a small group of red fish form a cooperative, and Swimmy becomes the eye of the group. Because they have come together, they can support each other, travel the ocean, and chase away larger fish. For these creatures, strength comes out of unity and working together.

Throughout his life Lionni supported other artists, giving them work and encouragement. When a young German refugee came to Lionni in the early fifties asking for work, Lionni looked at the young man’s portfolio and alerted him to a perfect position available at the New York Times. Eric Carle, author of The Very Hungry Caterpillar, has remained grateful throughout his career for Lionni’s kindness and mentorship. A new Lionni statue at the Eric Carle Picture Book Museum commemorates the special bond between these two amazing men.

So cooperate, work together, and be kind to authors and editors. These are lessons we not only need to teach our children—we need to remember them ourselves.

Here’s a page from Swimmy:


Originally posted September 10, 2011. Updated for .

Tags: Animals, Award Winning, Caldecott, Fish, Social Conscience
Instructional materials from TeachingBooks.net for Swimmy


  1. G.Perry says:

    Marvelous! Do I love reading about writers like Lionni or what!

    Dear God;

    In the unlikely event I am admitted to that big happy place in the beyond, I’ll need Children’s Book Almanac available if you expect me to behave.

    – Your exceptionally problematic applicant.

  2. Anita says:

    Gordon: a very nice letter.

    Lionni was even more generous to Eric Carle than I had space to describe. Lionni actually told Eric that if the job did not work out at the Times, Lionni would hire Eric at Fortune, even though no job then existed. It was just the kind of confidence booster that Eric needed.

  3. Sally Spratt says:

    Thanks for sharing. The artwork is beautiful. As I writer I envy the talented artists who create such beautiful artwork for picture books.

  4. McCourt says:

    I have always loved Swimmy – definitely one of my favorites from childhood. I enjoy hearing about what gives authors the ‘spark’ to create their stories, whether it be mentors or grandchildren. I might also have to bring out the sewing machine today to finish sewing on my kids’ Girl Scout patches on their assorted vests and sashes, in honor of sewing machine day – I always need motivation to tackle that task!

  5. I do a Leo Lionni author/illustrator study with my first grade students. They always see and hear wonderful themes in his work, such as: love of nature, friendship, cooperation, celebrating each of us for who we are etc…..). The unit culminates in the students watching a VHS (yikes…i hope our VCR stays healthy!) of Leo Lionni and each year it warms my heart to witness their reaction and watch their hearts melt when they see and hear this wonderful man talking about his life and his art. Thank you Anita for continuing to keep us all mindful of the great creators out there.

  6. Helen Frost says:

    Last week I discovered (elsewhere) that Mr. Greenjeans was the same actor who was the voice on the Little Orly records, and now I learn that SWIMMY and THE FAMILY OF MAN were created by the same person. Life is infinitely inter-connected and fascinating.

  7. There is an incredibly wonderful book by Vivian Gussin Paley, who was a gifted teacher. THE GIRL WITH THE BROWN CRAYON is her story of a year spent in her kindergarten classroom with the books of Leo Lionni, and I believe it should be mandatory reading for all teachers. How books change lives!!

  8. Melody says:

    I had no idea that he was behind The Family of Man. Millions of years ago when I taught for a year in a segregated school in NC, that was the only book that disappeared from my classroom shelf. I was happy it meant something to one of the children and hoped it went to a loving home.

  9. Many thanks for this post which produced such fine recollections & connections. Makes me smile.

  10. GM Hakim says:

    What a beautiful book. I was introduced to Lionni’s illustrations as an adult, through Vivan Gussin Paley’s The Girl With the Brown Crayon, which is an excellent book for early elementary school teachers. I immediately bought several Lionni books, including Swimmy, for my 4-year-old niece. These are like works of art between covers, all with well-told stories with excellent morals (and without excessive moralizing).

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