High Variance

Carle vs. Lionni: No Accounting for Taste

Most grown-ups, even those without kids, have heard of Eric Carle—He is an extremely popular children’s book author who illustrates using collage. In fact, his Brown Bear Brown Bear What Do See and The Very Hungry Caterpillar have now supplanted Margaret Wise Brown’s Goodnight Moon as the standard gift for newborn kids.

Both my daughters celebrated Eric Carle week at school last month and it got me thinking (again) just how over-rated he is. He’s either today’s Norman Rockwell or the kids’ version of Thomas Kinkade (“Painter of Light”).1 With a few exceptions (like The Secret Birthday Message), his books couldn’t be more repetitive and formulaic.

I’m not saying his books have no redeeming qualities—the pictures are pretty and they do appeal to the 1-2 year old crowd. But thats not exactly the most demanding audience and his collage style isn’t even unique. Leo Lionni started publishing picture books with collage back in 1959 and Lois Ehlert won a Caldecott in 1989 for Color Zoo.

Leo Lionni in particular deserves far more attention than he gets. The only good thing about many of his books being out of print is that it made it slightly easier to pick four Lionni books to send to my sister’s family for Christmas.

Lionni was a late bloomer as a children’s book author as he had a full career as a “real” artist before writing Little Blue and Little Yellow. His stories are quirky and many push the envelope on what’s possible in a kids’ book. And every one has a positive message. For example in his first book, the characters are splotches of color who get mixed up and turn green. Their parents don’t recognize them until they cry themselves apart, but then the parents recognize their mistake and learn not to be so judgmental.

In A Flea Story, you never even see the main characters. Instead you only hear a dialog that’s reminiscent of Herman Hesse’s odd couple Narcissus and Goldmund. One flea just wants to stay home on their dog’s butt while the other longs for adventure. They travel together for a while and then split to follow their own paths. Stories that appeal to both adults and children are rare and those that do usually have two sets of jokes (Rocky and Bullwinkle is the classic example). Lionni manages to make the same things funny to all ages.

One of R’s favorite Lioni stories is Matthew’s Dream. Matthew is a poor mouse who visits a museum with his school and is inspired to be an artist. He dreams fantastic versions of his mundane world and paints them into reality. Often when R paints her own pictures she says “I’m Matthew!”

In Alexander and the Wind-Up Mouse, Alexander yearns to be a windup mouse who is loved by the family instead of hated and chased with a broom. He finds a magical lizard who will grant him his wish in exchange for a purple pebble. By the time he acquires one, the world has changed and he learns to be careful what he wishes for. R still looks for purple pebbles to give to the lizard.

My one year old does like flipping through Eric Carle board books, but as soon as she will sit still and let us read to her, she’s graduating to Leo Lionni. The pictures are even more beautiful, the stories are awesome, and the whole family can enjoy the ride.

  1. My wife thinks it’s a cheap shot comparing Carle to Kinkade, but I never miss a chance to bring up my favorite abusive alcoholic religious nut-job artist, even if he did pass away recently. And the truth is, I think his work is pretty. Just like Eric Carle’s.