By Leo Lionni
Dragonfly Books, Alfred
Knopf, Inc. New York 1967
& Ten Questions:
by Kelly Albrecht
Frederick is a story of the people that we look to for
understanding, hope, and entertainment. While all of the other mice are
working to build up supplies for the coming winter, Frederick sits still. The
other mice gather food but they never see Frederick gather anything. Winter
comes and eventually the food runs out. The mice turn to Frederick. He tells
them about the world as he sees and feels it. They forget that they are cold
and hungry. With a poem, Frederick helps the mice appreciate and understand
winter. His supplies are not food but they turn out to be valuable just the
The story of Frederick raises many philosophical issues about
the artist and the artist's role in society.
There are many different kinds of artist. A poet is one.
Musicians, painters, sculptors, and actors are some more examples. Artists
intensify our experiences and show the world to us in new ways. The artist
draws from unique and perplexing resources and her work connects with a
different part of us than, say, that of a farmer. Yet both roles are
necessary. The artist, and the benefit that the artist offers society, is
very valuable and merits deep consideration and celebration.
From where and how do artist select their resources?(questions
1 and 2)
Artists look to their experiences of the world, of course, but
they also reflect on their own interpretations and create ways to communicate
their feelings effectively. This is a mental activity and it differs in very
interesting ways from physical activities such as milking a cow to drink its
milk. Art begins in the mind. The subject matter can be selected and
considered with very little physical activity. Milking a cow requires a lot
of, believe it or not, skilled squeezing, but it can be done with very little
contemplation. Questions one and two try to draw out, for consideration, this
difference between mental and physical activity.
How does art communicate? How do we relate to it? How can it
(questions 3, 4, 5, and 6)
We must look at art in the same way that the artist examines
the world. We must sense it, then interpret what it means to us and how it
makes us feel. Deep consideration should make it possible for the artist's
message to be conveyed. How is this possible? Question three considers the
effect that art can have on us physically. Music can produce chills in a
listener. Movies can produce tears in a viewer. Many, however, react
differently to the same piece of artistic expression (question 6). Questions
four and five explore colors. Does color exist independently of that which is
colored? Is there any object that is pure color? To the physicist, color has
something to do with wavelengths of light. Wavelengths are sensed with the
eye and this information is sent to the brain. The brain, or mind, interprets
the data as color. Does this mean that color, as we are most familiar with
it, exists only in the mind? Art often encourages us to focus, although
abstractly, on pure color (whether the color is paint, chalk, colorful words,
What does a work of art do for us? How is it different from
what the product of physical labor can do for us? (question 7)
Is art a form of nourishment for the mind? Do our minds, in a
way, get thirsty for a sip of music? Can a mind be famished, starved of
mental nutrients, and survive? Or, in another direction, is art something,
bubbling up inside of us like lava in a volcano that needs to erupt from time
to time? Could we live without arts or entertainment? If we could survive
without artistic expression, then how has it survived on its own? Our need to
create and mentally digest artistic expression seems to extend from the core
of our humanity. I suppose that some of us would go on breathing without
poetry or painting, but I doubt that we would still be human.
How does the artist fit into society? (questions 8 and 9)
What is work? Why do we have to work? Can work be fun? Does it
have to be difficult? What does one have to do to be a worker? How can an
artist be considered a worker? What are his goods and services for society?
How does he make a living? Is one type of work more valuable than another? Or
is each job just an equal part of what needs to be done for humanity? Doctors
may save lives, but how would things be without janitors?
What is an artist? (question 10)
Question ten attempts at a general consensus of what an artist
is or does. The consensus may never be reached, but exploratory discussion
may be all that is necessary.
winter approaches, the other mice "gather corn and nuts and wheat and straw"
but Frederick gathers sunrays and colors and words.
A. Some people
get a tan in the summer; is this one way to gather sun rays?
B. How do
you suppose that Frederick gathers the sunrays? Is it like getting a tan? What
about the colors?
can see the sun and feel its warmth, he can also see colors, but from where is
he gathering the words?
other mice gather their supplies by carrying them to a safe place.
A. Can you hold
a sunray in your hand? How about a color? A word?
does Frederick hold onto all of the sunrays, colors, and words that he has
gathered? Where does he keep them? Could he carry them in a basket?
tells the other mice about the sunrays and then they feel warmer.
A. How does
listening to your favorite song make you feel?
B. If you
tried hard enough, could you make yourself feel warmer just by thinking? When
you think about getting a shot at the doctors and you shiver or get "the
chills," did you make yourself feel colder just by thinking?
thinking about sunrays made the mice less cold, would thinking about food make
them less hungry? Why?
tells the other mice "of the blue periwinkles, the red poppies in the yellow
wheat, and the green leaves of the berry bush." The other mice then see the
A. You probably
have a box of crayons somewhere at your home. Are those all the colors in the
universe? Are there more? Could you count all the colors? How many might there
about different shades of a color, for example light blue and dark blue? Is
each shade a new color?
mentions "the green leaves." Is green a single color, one thing by itself? You
can mix blue and yellow paint to get green paint. Is green just blue and yellow
mixed together? Can something be one thing and two things at the same time?
there anything that you can see that has no color whatsoever?
A clean window is clear. How do you see a window?
Is clear a color? Could you add it to your crayon box?
mice think about Frederick's words.
Frederick speaks, do you suppose that all the mice think the exact same things?
Could two mice hear the same word but think different things?
B. If all
of you were told to think about, say, a car, might each of you think about the
same car? Could it be the same with thinking about feelings or colors? Why?
Does everybody think the same way about being happy? What about the color blue?
are some ways to communicate without words?
the supplies of the other mice run out, Frederick shares his own supplies.
A. What is
different about Frederick's supplies?
are the other mice's supplies used? How are Frederick's used? Can Frederick's
supplies run out?
your brain need to eat?
didn't gather any food, but he ate some.
Frederick earn his food by sharing his thoughts and his poetry? Was it a trade?
Was it fair? Why?
are some things people do that they get money for doing? What is work? Is what
Frederick does "work"? Can work be easy? Can work be fun?
if the mice didn't like Frederick's supplies? If they didn't like his poetry,
would they have been happy to have him eat the food they saved?
you ever written a poem? Have you ever done chores for your parents?
A. Is it easy
to do the work that Frederick does? What if the only work people did was to
write poetry the way Frederick did? How could we eat?
B. Is it
easy to do what the other mice do? What if nobody wrote poetry the way
Frederick did? Do we need things like poetry?
Frederick have done a little food gathering while the other mice did a little
10. What is an
artist? Is Frederick an artist?
Can you think of some other kinds of artists who work the way
Just a few days ago, I went into the Lunenburg Elementary
read Frederick to 30 fourth grade students. I did not even
questions sheet. After the story, I asked them what parts
best. About 25 hands went up. Whatever nervousness I had at
evaporated. They liked, for example, how Frederick made the
and how he just sat there not doing anything at first.
"But he was doing
something," Dave said, "its just different."
How is the gathering
different? "One is carrying, one is thinking,"
Kevin said. At first,
Frederick's gathering was like getting a tan, but then Stacy
that he carried his supplies in his mind. Where do the words
Dave: "when he thinks, the words are just there."
Andy: "The words come
from his heart."
About Frederick making the other mice warmer-
At first, they all agreed that thinking about the sun makes
When Angela does the dishes and the water is too hot, she
thinks of ice
and it works: her hands feel cooler. What about thinking of
you are hungry? "NO!!!" One boy said, "When I
have to go to the
bathroom, I think of something else, so maybe its like
About the colors-
We talked about crayons, mixing paint, color blindness (in
animals), and an interesting problem that Dave raised. Some
there were only three colors: the primary ones. Others
infinity: one girl said, "Infinity plus two." From
this we worked on
being consistent when we say whether or not green is its own
what Dave wanted to know was, "How can we know if
someone else sees the
same color?" He meant that, "if you traded eye
balls with someone" and
they really were seeing different colors than you. The
problem was that
even though they were really 'seeing' as green an object
'really' red, they were consistently calling it red
"because they had
learned to." We all decided that we didn't know how to
find out what
other people were "seeing," and that it didn't matter
much as long as
the person had learned to consistently call the colors by
About Frederick not doing anything-
They all quickly concluded that what Frederick did was work,
he made a
fair trade for the food and if the mice did not like the
should "kick him out of the cave." This explains
the "starving artist."
But they really got stuck on the colors. We would talk and
talk and some
kids would get bored and start fooling around. I would
subject, the fooling around would stop and everyone would
interested again. But, next thing I knew, we were back on
"If the colors are 'in the mind' and not 'out there,'
then how do we see
anything? Wouldn't everything be the same color, I mean no
talked about the clean window and needing color to see.
"But if the
colors are out there then why can't I hold one?" One
girl tried to
explain what her dad told her (think physics) but this was
satisfactory. The whole thing was really wild.
Fourth graders are ready for more advanced stuff but this
was a blast
all the same. What was amazing was the display of natural
skills. There were "if-thens" all over the place.
There was a concern
for the "truth" and for consistency, and there was
combined with a fearless sharing of thoughts, concerns and
of them had something to say about everything. Eager hands
in the air. I couldn't help but to notice the difference
and a typical college philosophy class, where most are
afraid to say
something "wrong." There is something that happens
between fourth grade
and college that may need to be remedied.
We all talked for almost two hours.