Looking for a classic book that’s still relevant today? Leo Lionni’s Frederick will not disappoint! A 1968 Caldecott Honor recipient, Frederick combines beautifully simple artwork with poetic language to deliver a powerful message that still resonates with today’s children and adults.
The story begins by introducing a group of five mice who are busy preparing for the fast-approaching winter. While four of the mice work tirelessly hauling wheat, corn, nuts, and straw to their home, Frederick seems to sit lazily apart from the others.
When asked “why don’t you work?” Frederick patiently explains that he is indeed working. Rather than gathering physical supplies for the winter, Frederick reveals that he is collecting more abstract things such as sun rays, colors, and words. Perhaps unsurprisingly, the other mice are not impressed by such statements, and continue to build their store of food.
The winter begins nicely as the mice retreat to their shelter in a pile of stones. Everyone is cheerful and food is plentiful. Yet, as the days drag on and supplies deplete, the mice become bitter and unhappy. However, they remember the things Frederick collected and ask him to produce his supplies. Drawing on his store of simple, natural beauty, Frederick fills the cold, dreary shelter with light from warm sun rays, colors from flowering fields, and even elegant poetry. The other mice are in awe of Frederick’s abilities, and find themselves finally appreciating artistry and valuing simple beauty.
Although this story is simple, complex themes arise and are strengthened by both the words and illustrations. For example, Lionni develops the sophisticated message that art and nature’s beauty are crucial for survival by creating a believable need for both. Because children will understand the hardships faced by the mice as they isolate themselves in a bleak stony shelter, the simple plot makes it easy for children to grasp the more complicated message that artistry and simple, everyday beauty have as much importance as other basic human needs. Furthermore, since the plot is centered around mice in a field rather than people in a specific city, the characters and events take on a timeless quality and could reasonably take place almost anywhere in any time period. Thus, the story and its theme are well-developed, believable, and relatable to today’s children.
Children and adults alike will also adore Lionni’s artwork on every page. These marvelous illustrations help develop the theme of artistry and simple beauty. By layering vibrant colors and detailed textures on top of simple, almost abstract shapes, Lionni essentially proves the validity of the story’s message. Although the shapes themselves are very basic and placed on a white background, a closer look reveals that the colors and textures integrated into these shapes are quite intricate, creating images that are both soft and vibrant, simple and complex at the same time. Thus, Lionni’s masterful artwork not only provides a visual representation of the words in the story, but also proves and extends the idea that much value lies in creativity and simple beauty.
Ultimately, many children (and adults) may find themselves relating closely to Frederick. Artistic children who spend their time quietly taking in the simple magnificence of the world (and especially children who are nagged or looked down upon for doing so) will find hope in this little mouse. They will see that their artistic contributions and appreciation for everyday beauty are just as essential for human life as those pursuits typically deemed more important. Thus, Frederick helps children answer a question that persists to this day: what is art, and why is it important? In an age where math, science, and other such subjects are increasingly favored over art, and where nature’s beauty is constantly threatened by human activity, this beautiful book and its message about the importance of art and simple beauty in times of darkness remain relevant and applicable to today’s children. Plus, aren’t those mice just positively adorable?