Leo Lionni’s Frederick & Creativity in a Post-Work World
I’ve read Frederick by Leo Lionni to my kids almost as many times as I’ve read Goodnight Darth Vader and James Kochalka’s Glorkian Warrior books.
Though published in 1967, the Caldecott Honor recipient remains a favorite in our family not only because of its visual appeal, but also because of its emphasis on the value of creative work and community interdependence.
Predictions that creativity will be the next generation’s most valuable skill keep popping up. (A few examples can be found at The New York Times
, on Medium
, and at The Atlantic
.) What does this mean?
I initially wondered, admittedly leery about reading another article that would make me feel like I’m shorting my kids. I wasn’t sure whether it meant that jobs in the arts would be on the rise (hard to imagine), or employers would be hiring more workers with creative skills (not as hard to imagine). Turns out, neither guess was completely correct.
These articles—written by educators, economists, and futurists—refer to the job market my kids will enter as a “post-work” world and suggest that simply knowing things and being skilled at something will not be enough to make individuals competitive in emerging job markets. Why is this logic sound? If information is readily available and jobs are replaced by technology, individual workers will need to set themselves apart and/or develop new types of work via what’s known as creative destruction.
“There is a solution,” writes Dustin Timbrook, Media Director of Lowe Mill ARTS and Entertainment, “and it doesn’t involve tired, useless attempts at suppressing technology. Like most good solutions it requires a trait that is distinctly human. I’m speaking about creativity.”
follows a small community of field mice as they prepare for the coming winter. Each mouse does a job—gathering and storing food, preparing their home for the cold. But one mouse, Frederick, doesn’t appear to be doing anything but staring out at the meadow. When the other mice complain, he tells them he’s gathering colors because “winter is gray” and sun rays for “cold dark winter days,” insisting all the while that he is
working. He’s not lying around dreaming, he says, but “gathering words” for when the mice run out of things to say.
It’s not until the end of the book that Frederick’s work is revealed: he has written poetry, which he recites on the darkest and coldest of winter days after the mice have run out of food. The words comfort the mice and carry them through the final winter stretch in anticipation of a new season of growth.
’s message with regard to art and creativity is twofold. It reconfirms that the creative process is work, and it reinforces one of art’s many purposes.
Creativity is not a new contender in the educational boxing ring. For decades, parents, teachers, and advocates of the arts have fought to keep instruction in the creative arts part of school curricula. Today’s conversation about this topic often involves two thought modules represented by two acronyms: STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math) and STEAM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Arts, and Math). This translates to education without the arts versus education with the arts. Forbes magazine
offers a simple illustration of the applied difference between the two:
When we craft educational strategies to address purely economic outcomes – jobs, manufacturing, growth and so on – we draw constraints around innovation. It’s not that the areas of study or the curriculum itself are wrong, so much as we are studying for the wrong reason. If our curriculum is aimed at preparing young people to do
a job, how likely is it to prepare them to create
Frederick isn’t still popular fifty years after its publication because of its cute mice. It’s popular because it’s still relevant to our cultural and economic conversations. We’re still defending the value and role of the arts in curriculum and in our economy.
Even if your kids are too old for this classic (it’s best for 4 – 7 year olds and Step 3 readers), it wouldn’t hurt to give it a read yourself so that you can be mindful about how you foster creative opportunity and support in your child’s life and education. These opportunities are important because we never know who among us will turn out to be the poets and creative destructors. Teachers can find instruction about the book’s philosophy for the classroom here