Each year the Caldecott Medal is awarded to a book that represents the best of children's illustration. The illustrious list of winning books contains a massive variety, from the style of the illustrations to the subjects of the books, to the backgrounds of the illustrators who poured themselves into the creation of these amazing pieces of art. The latest illustrator to be featured in our Caldecott Winning Illustrators Series is Leo Politi. Politi won the award in 1950 for his book Song of the Swallows.
Who is Leo Politi?
Leo Politi, born Atiglio Leoni Politi, was born in 1908 in Fresno, California to Italian immigrants. However, most of his formative years were spent in Europe. When Politi was seven, his family moved to Broni, Italy, a small village near Milan where his mother was born. While the family lived in Broni, Politi's father lived in a separate town where he found work as a cobbler.
Village life inspired Politi's early artistic endeavors, and he cut his teeth on drawing the people and buildings that made up the small Italian town. Though the family lived apart for several years, they all later moved to London where Politi was able to live a more metropolitan life. In London, he was exposed to a different and more modern way of creating art. He eventually moved back to Broni and earned a scholarship to study for six years at the National Art Institute near Milan.
When Politi was 22 years old, he moved back to California, traveling through Central America on his way there. During his travels, he developed an interest in Mexican culture that served as an inspiration to him for the rest of his career.
He began working in Los Angeles as a street artist, selling sketches and portraits to tourists. As buzz began to swirl around him, Politi was able to translate this popularity into sales of sketches for magazines. Eventually, he was invited to participate in several exhibitions. He published his first book, Little Pancho, in 1938. The book caught the eye of Script magazine editors and he was given a job as artistic editor.
Politi became known as a champion of multiculturalism in art through both his children's books and work for magazines. His books Pedro, the Angel of Olvero Street and Juanita were runners up for the Caldecott Medal. In 1950, he was finally awarded the Caldecott Medal for Song of the Swallows.
Examining Politi's Artistic Style
Politi is known for his often-used color palate inspired by the Mayan culture he took in while traveling through Central America. Much of his work incorporates the deep greens, ochre, browns, and reds he saw during that time. Politi often worked in sculpture, water color, oil paint, lithography, and woodcutting. His early career was clearly influenced by art deco and cubist styles, but later work saw his art softening into the style found most often in his children's books. No matter what medium or style Politi used, themes of multiculturalism and pacifism are often present.
Why else have you heard of Leo Politi?
Besides being well known for his contributions to children's literature, Politi's Bunker Hill, Los Angeles: Reminiscences of Bygone Days received quite a bit of buzz. Politi also became well known for his work as art editor of two pacifist magazines, Script and Freedom.
Collecting Leo Politi
Bunker Hill, Los Angeles: Reminiscences of Bygone Days
Published in 1964, this book serves as a sort of memorial to the Bunker Hill neighborhood of Los Angels where Politi lived for much of his adult life. The neighborhood, once known for its beautiful Victorian homes, was torn down over a period of twenty years and was replaced by high rise apartments. The historic neighborhood is now completely unrecognizable. Politi's book tells the story of the neighborhood and pairs it with his illustrations to create a portrait of a long-gone piece of Los Angeles history. While children are not the intended audience, the book is a nostalgic and bittersweet glimpse at a place that was influential and much loved by Politi.
Song of the Swallows
Politi's Song of the Swallows won the Caldecott Medal in 1950. This book focuses on one of the many amazing natural phenomena that exist in Politi's beloved California: the annual migration of swallows to San Juan Capistrano. Shown through the eyes of two children who live in an old mission that serves as a home each year for hundreds of birds, the book shows how the swallows make their amazing journey from South America to spend their summers in California.
Politi's 1948 children's book was a runner up for the Caldecott medal and is worth collecting not only for the quality of its illustrations, but for the emphasis on multiculturalism, which was a hallmark of Politi's work, though it was considered unusual at the time.
Juanita is a portrait of the Latino community of Olvero Street. It depicts Juanita whose parents own a shop where they sell handmade lacework, baskets, and dresses. Her parents give her a dove for her birthday which she takes to the annual Blessing of the Animals at her local church.