Frederick, by Leo Lionni — by Jen W.


Leo Lionni’s book Frederick is a great book for grammar stage kids. It contains pictures of adorable mice and a lesson about valuing different types of work in society.

There are a few things I like about the books of Leo Lionni in general. He uses many different techniques to create his artwork. You can find paper cutting, stamping, collage, and other techniques that are easy for a child to try out and emulate. I also appreciate the fact that he doesn’t dumb down his vocabulary to fit small children. His use of poetic language and descriptive words provides wonderful examples for kids.

First, we are introduced to a lovely meadow with a stone wall. We then meet the chatty mouse family that lives within the wall. Finally, we meet Frederick, introduced as the lone mouse who isn’t working hard gathering grain and nuts for the winter. This method helps us feel we are zooming in on the scene. It feels intimate, and we are slowly drawn into the mouse community.

How do we figure out the theme of the book? We look at the problems that the mice are having. There are three basic problems that the mice deal with: 1) they need to gather food for the winter, 2) Frederick doesn’t want to work, and 3) how to deal with the glum boredom of winter. As we progress through the book, it becomes obvious that the three themes combine. Yes, it is necessary to gather food for the winter, but gathering food isn’t the *only* necessary thing for the mice to survive the harsh winter. But, let’s leave Frederick and the mice for just a moment.

“Practice any art, music, singing, dancing, acting, drawing, painting, sculpting, poetry, fiction, essays, reportage, no matter how well or badly, not to get money and fame, but to experience becoming, to find out what’s inside you, to make your soul grow.“  — Kurt Vonnegut

I recently read an article on how many art programs are being cut from schools due to deep cuts in federal funding. In the same week, I read If This Isn’t Nice, What Is?: Advice for the Young, a collection of Kurt Vonnegut’s speeches and letters. One of Vonnegut’s recurrent themes was the importance of creation. In Vonnegut’s view, it doesn’t matter what you create; it doesn’t matter if anyone ever sees it. It only matters that you create.

Most homeschooling parents have read articles on the importance of art to a child’s development. But, most have also felt the strong temptation of letting the arts slip as we squeeze every minute of the day to have time for chores, sports, time with peers, and just fitting in the three Rs.

At this point, you are probably wondering what creation and art have to do with literary analysis, much less to do with the little mouse named Frederick. First, I strongly believe that it is easier to analyze literature when you’ve practiced writing a little. You learn the tricks and shortcuts that authors use to get their point across more easily. But, mainly, the quote speaks to what I believe is the real point of Frederick.

During the food gathering season, Frederick seems to daydream and laze about. But soon enough, the winter comes. The food supply becomes short. The mice are sad and forlorn. Frederick infuses some happiness back into their lives by telling stories — by creating. His creation helps all of those around him, not just himself. It soon becomes clear that although Frederick used his time differently than the other mice, it was equally worthy and productive, albeit not in a tangible sense.


Clearly, Lionni is making several points. First, art is worthy. It’s worthy of our time and attention. Art is worth giving compensation to an artist. Art can be a vocation that takes time away from “producing” in a more traditional sense. It’s a message that too many parents do not agree with.

Many parents are willing to pay for sports or a math tutor, but not for music or drawing lessons. Many parents are willing to help their child pursue a business degree, but not a degree in the arts. I think this book can provide food for thought for parents of all children. Do we truly value the arts? How can our actions reflect that?

Jen is a born and bred Sooner who has spent twenty years following her military husband around the world. Jen started on her homeschooling journey when her eldest daughter learned to read at three years old, and she decided that she couldn’t screw up kindergarten that badly. That child is now a senior in high school, and they have both survived homeschooling throughout. Jen has two more children who are equally smart and have also homeschooled all along.

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