With his fourth picture book, Lionni once again turns to a different technique. For Swimmy, he mainly uses block printing, which illustrates the idea of moving water and blurred forms particularly well. This "first real fable", according to Lionni himself, already shows the basic matrix of his later picture books and convinces by its clear structure of the narrative combination of pictures and text.
When the small red fish are eaten by large predatory fish, Swimmy, the small red fish swims alone through the vast sea. Among other creatures, he encounters a jellyfish, a lobster, an eel, until he finally comes across a school of small red fish again. To prevent them from being eaten too, he suggests that they swim in the shape of a large fish. He himself forms the (black) eye. This little story can be read in different ways. "Together we are strong" is only one possible interpretation. Lionni sees in "Swimmy" a kind of alter ego. "He saw the image of the big fish in his mind's eye. That was the gift he had been given: to see."
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)
Leo Lionni, Before Images, in: The Horn Book Magazine, Nov/Dec.1984
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, Between Worlds: The Autobiography of Leo Lionni. New York: Knopf, 1997.