Lesser artists may strive to be hip, but Leo Lionni has the brilliantly assured simplicity of a master. Frederick, Lionni's collage picture book, won a brace of awards when it was first published 24 years ago and it continues to delight to this day.
Frederick is a tiny, sleepy-looking field mouse who sits in the sun while his relatives busily collect nuts and berries to stockpile for the long winter ahead. ''I do work,'' he insists when the other members of his family reproach him. Frederick is gathering words and colors for the dark of winter.
Frederick is as good as his word. When snow muffles the world, and when the mouse family runs low on supplies and hope, Frederick kindles a glow of color and warmth for his shivering relatives by the sheer force of his imagination. ''But Frederick, you are a poet!'' they exclaim. ''I know it,'' he says, blushing modestly.
The enduring appeal of Lionni's collages is their uncloying sweetness. The collage shapes are so terse and simple they're almost abstract; the humor and charm are all the more irresistible for their understatement. When Frederick describes the sun for his shivering family, a warm pool of golden light illumines the gray boulders. When the mice close their eyes to imagine the red poppies in a wheat field, an artist's palette of colors appears in their thought balloons.
Frederick is an artfully artless tribute to the powers of imagination and a boost to small dreamers' self-esteem. I even love Lionni's idea of scrawling Frederick's signature all over the inside of the book's covers: It's a perfect evocation of a child's tentative egotism, writing his name bravely on the world. A+