January 07

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SURVIVING COVID WINTER: A Lesson from Leo Lionni’s Frederick by James Preller

I’ve got a friend, Paul, who is one of those infinitely capable guys. You probably know the type. He can build furniture, fix nearly anything, chainsaw fallen trees, fire a gun, drive a backhoe, and slowly smoke a delicious brisket.

 

Our friends sometimes joke that when it comes to the zombie apocalypse, we all want to stick with Paul. He’s the kind of guy you’d want around to build a tree house and set up a defense perimeter. He’d probably figure out how to capture rainwater with rubber bands, a beer can, and a t-shirt. Then my pals look at me and think: Yeah, dead in half an hour.

 

Nobody needs a children’s book writer when the hordes are coming down from the hills.

 

But that’s when I think about Leo Lionni’s 1967 children’s book, Frederick.

 

In that story, a chatty family of field mice live in an old stone wall. With winter coming, the little mice gather nuts and wheat and straw. They work all day and night — except for Frederick, who dreamily sits off to the side while the others labor.

 

As the story progresses, family members chide Frederick for his useless ways. And he replies, “I do work.”

 

He gathers the sun rays (for winter is cold), he gathers colors (for winter is gray), and he gathers words (for the winter days are long and many, and we’ll run out of things to say).

 

And so inevitably winter comes, as it must. The mice slowly eat through their supplies, nibbling happily and telling silly stories. But little by little, gray day after gray day, the cold and hunger takes its toll. No one feels like chatting anymore.

 

At that moment, Frederick climbs upon a large stone. “Close your eyes,” he instructs his audience. “Now I send you the rays of the sun.” Frederick describes the sun’s golden, warm glow. He talks about colors, too, recalling blue periwinkles, red poppies, yellow wheat and green grass until the field mice saw the colors as clearly as if they had been painted in their minds.

 

Finally, Frederick recites a poem of his own making. Twelve lines, concluding with this couplet: “Aren’t we lucky the seasons are four?/Think of a year with one less . . . or one more!”

 

The family cheers, buoyed by Frederick’s words. They proclaim him to be a poet. To which he replies, after blushing and taking a bow, “I know it.”

 

I turn my thoughts to this present season, the anxiety and the loss, the isolation and sacrifice, and remember how the arts help to sustain us through the darkest times. The songs we sing, the paintings that stir our souls, the books that enrich and transport us.

 

We’ve just lived through a mean period under a president who didn’t care to read books. And if he ever pondered a sunset, it was only to wonder how he might monetize it. Our government has neglected the arts, and failed to support our artists. Perhaps in these lean times, it doesn’t seem that important to some. We need electricians and grocers, police and financiers, nurses and essential workers.

 

But in a children’s book about the triumph of the spirit, Leo Lionni reminds us that we need our poets, too. Maybe more than ever. In the event of a zombie apocalypse, you’ll surely want someone like my friend, Paul. But you might also want to consider teaming up with a poet.

 

James Preller is the author who is currently hunkering down in Delmar, NY, with his midwife-wife Lisa, son Gavin (21), and daughter Maggie (20).
 
James Preller is the author of the Jigsaw Jones series, along with many other books. His new middle-grade title, Upstander (Macmillan), arrives in the Spring, 2021, and is available to advance readers through NetGalley.