With his second picture book, Lionni laid the foundation for the design principle of most of his picture books. In clearly structured images and with short lines of text, he tells a simple story in the manner of an animal fable. A small inchworm defends itself against the birds' appetite: “Don't eat me. I am an inchworm. I am useful. I measure things.” When the nightingale demands that he measure its song, the little inchworm comes up with a saving idea. As the nightingale sings, the inchworm crawls along grasses and leaf stalks until he "disappears piece by piece from view.
Lionni uses the wide space of the double spreads to compose the visual narrative with only a few, simply outlined, painted, and then cut-out collage elements: the dominant, curved neck of a flamingo, for example, or the brightly coloured head and beak of a toucan, or the legs of a heron whose pointed, yellow beak comes dangerously close to the small critter. Towards the end, Lionni spreads a dense meadow landscape across the double pages, which gives the inchworm protection and literally demonstrates its salvation in the overall composition.
Leo Lionni was born 1910 in Amsterdam and died 1999 in Radda/Chianti, Italy, as a distinguished graphic designer, painter, sculptor and internationally recognized picture book artist.
From an early age Lionni devoted himself to drawing and painting, but never received any formal artistic training. In 1925 the family left Amsterdam to live in Genoa. There he attended a commercial high school, and then studied economics. He completed his studies in 1935 with a doctorate. Since 1931, living in Milan among the circle of the Italian Futurist artists' group, he worked as a painter, photographer and graphic designer.
In 1939 he immigrated to the USA and worked for an advertising agency in Philadelphia. In 1947 he had his first solo exhibition in New York, where he lived as art director and co-editor of Fortune magazine and ran his own design studio.
From 1962 until his death Lionni lived mainly in Italy. Along with his work as a sculptor and painter, he devoted himself to picture books, for which he also wrote the texts. "Storytelling is the essence of my style", he writes in his autobiography, applying this conviction not only to his books. In a speech at the Library of Congress in Washington he declared "...like all fiction, illustrated children's books are inevitably autobiography." And: "Like Swimmy, the creator of picture books for children has the responsibility to see for the others. He has the power and hence the mission to reveal beauty and meaning. A good picture book should have both."
Steven Heller (Lionni’s biographer), “Leo Lionni”, AIGA Graphic Design USA, © 1984, The American Institute of Graphic Arts. https://www.aiga.org/medalist-leolionni (with a long list of additional resources)
Steven Heller, Many Things to Many People, in: Leo Lionni at the Library of Congress, Washington: Library of Congress, 1993.
Leo Lionni, Me as in Mouse,in. Leo Lionni at the Library of Congress, 1993
Leo Lionni, Before Images, in: The Horn Book Magazine, Nov./Dec. 1984
Leo Lionni, Between Worlds: The Autobiography of Leo Lionni. New York: Knopf, 1997.