How to Teach Leo Lionni’s Books in the Primary Grades

Leo Lionni is a favorite author for the primary grades. This post includes lesson ideas and resources celebrating his wonderful books. Every child should enjoy these sweet animal tales.

Leo Lionni is a favorite author for the primary grades. His wonderful mouse stories and interesting illustrations have become his trademark. Lionni’s books are all written around a second grade level, and he is a fantastic choice if you’re interested in an author study.

The Life and Times of Leo Lionni

As a child, Leo Lionni spent a lot of time visiting museums, and he loved art. Interestingly, he was a self taught artist. He didn’t even study art in college. Leo Lionni studied economics, but by the early 1930s, his passion for art took over as his career.

Shortly after he married, he and his wife relocated to the United States (1939), and his career as an artist took off. He had work showcased in various galleries in New York and Japan. Then, in 1959, Leo Lionni’s first book was published, Little Blue and Little Yellow. It was followed by a long list of others including SwimmyAlexander and the Wind-Up MouseInch by InchFrederickA Color of His Own, and Fish is Fish. Several of these were award winners. Certainly, his illustration style is easy to identify. For students who love animals, Leo Lionni’s books are a hit.

Teaching with Leo Lionni’s Books

Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse

Alexander and the Wind-up Mouse is a sweet book about friendship, so it’s perfect for Valentine’s Day, Back to School, or any time you want to work on peer relationships. Teachers might use this book as a mentor text for narrative writing about imaginary friends such as stuffed animals or dolls. It is also a great model for character change, narrative elements such as problem/solution, and character traits.

This book is one of the four Lionni books that won the Caldecott Honor Award. To explore what’s included in my unit for this book, click [HERE].


Another favorite of mine is Swimmy. Why do I love it? Well, it too has themes of friendship, but it also celebrates individuality and the importance of building upon your strengths. It stimulates wonderful discussion, and offers a great model for writing. Lionni won the Caldecott Honor Award for this book as well, and the illustrations are fantastic.

Reading skills that work well for it include plot development, character change, author’s purpose, and making comparisons across texts. If you’re teaching an ocean theme, Swimmy is one you must include. To explore the unit to the right, click [HERE]

Fish is Fish

While we’re talking about an ocean theme, here is one more. Fish is Fish is the story of two unlikely friends, Fish and Tadpole. Like Swimmy, it has themes of uniqueness and celebrating who we are. Fish tries to think about growing wings and other adaptations to remain friends with Tadpole who is now a land animal.

Reading skills you might explore include character change and development, narrative elements, comparing fish and frogs, and questioning. [THIS POST] on Scholastic offers three fun lesson ideas you might like. To check out this unit of mine, [CLICK HERE]

Inch by Inch

Want a great book to tie into your next measurement unit? Inch by Inch is a great choice. It too was one of Lionni’s Caldecott Honor Award winners, and this is the one that will get you outside. How about measuring blades of grass, sticks, rocks, and other signs of nature?

The mini unit I created to go with this book includes reading skills with beginning, middle, end, making comparisons, schema building, and vocabulary, but it also focuses on concepts with measurement too in the extension options. [CLICK HERE] to check it out.

A Color of His Own

The next book I want to share is all about celebrating differences. A Color of His Own is such a great choice for helping kids with decision making, accepting others, and for helping kids to be comfortable in their own skin. In this book, a chameleon is the main character too, so it’s fun for kids to explore an animal that may be a little new. You might pair nonfiction books or articles about chameleons to help kids compare/contrast fiction and nonfiction.

Research reports might also work well. If you like project based learning, you might have your kids research animals with unique features and create a poster, brochure, or slide show sharing why this features is special and important to the animal’s survival, and certainly, class books and prompt ideas are endless. To check out this unit, [CLICK HERE].

A Busy Year

In the fall, one of my favorite Lionni books to use is A Busy Year. This one tells the story of two busy mice who care for a tree. The story shares the tree’s life cycle, so if you teach life cycles in second grade, this one could be added to your text sets. This book too could be paired with nonfiction titles about trees for comparison. A project students might enjoy is researching care of trees. They might explore logging practices and create a project explaining how we might reduce the amount of logging or improve our practice.

Reading skills included in this set are sequencing, making connection, visualizing, vocabulary development, and narrative elements. To explore further, [CLICK HERE]


The final Lionni book I wanted to share is probably the most popular. Frederick is about a young mouse that’s a poet and dreamer. He spend the fall thinking and contemplating instead of gathering food. If you study fables, this is perfect for that unit. In fact, there are lessons with all of Lionni’s books, so comparing/contrasting them to similar fables is a way to get your kids thinking more deeply. [HERE] is the link to the mini unit I have available.

Whether you choose to use some or all of these wonderful works, be sure Leo Lionni is on your author study list. He left us in 1999, but his life’s work will be with us for a long, long time. These timeless classics have so many important lessons for our students, and we don’t want our kids to miss out.

Leo Lionni is a favorite author for the primary grades. This post includes lesson ideas and resources celebrating his wonderful books. Every child should enjoy these sweet animal tales.

If you’re interested in the Leo Lionni bundle that includes all of these units, click the cover image below. The bundle is $22.00 for all seven units. You can’t beat that! If interested, check out the link below.

Have a great end of the school year (if you’re in the US) or a great weekend (if not), and until next time…happy reading!



Carla is a licensed reading specialist with 27 years of experience in the regular classroom (grades 1, 4, and 5), in Title 1 reading, as a tech specialists, and a literacy coach. She has a passion for literacy instruction and meeting the needs of the individual learner.