Fresno’s most-celebrated children’s author and illustrator Leo Politi is being honored with a garden, which broke ground March 8, outside the Henry Madden Library.
Politi was born in Fresno in 1908, he spent his first seven years in the area until his family moved to Italy. Politi then moved back to the United States in 1931, spending most of his adult life in Los Angeles.
Politi authored and illustrated more than 20 children’s books. His most renowned book being “Song of the Swallows,” which won the 1950 Caldecott Medal, distinguished itself as the top children’s picture book of the year. Politi’s books were known for showcasing different ethnicities, which was unheard of during his era.
Politi became close friends with Fresno State professor Arne Nixon, whose name graces the center for the study of children’s literature in the library, and would return to Fresno to join Nixon in some of his children’s book workshops. Funding for the Leo Politi garden was provided by the Arne Nixon Center Advocates (ANCA).
Angelica Carpenter, the curator of the Arne Nixon Center, said the plans to build the garden started five years ago.
“The garden honors the friendship of these two old friends,” Carpenter said. “The Arne Nixon Center Advocates are funding all of it. They have raised just over $75,000 and wanted to tribute this friendship.”
Carpenter said donations and the annual Secret Garden Party thrown by ANCA provided the funds for the planned garden. This year’s Secret Garden Party will take place on April 11.
Robert Boro, the consulting landscaping director for Fresno State, has designed much of the scenery on campus. Boro studied Politi’s artwork and incorporated Politi’s style into the design of the garden.
“He was what I would call a primitive artist,” Boro said. “He painted his subjects in a very familiar way and not too sophisticated. He didn’t sugarcoat anything. So we created a Leo Politi garden that reflected some of the elements in his paintings.”
Boro said the garden will feature a fountain based on the art from “Song of the Swallows.” He said he hopes the garden will have several statues from Politi’s books and tiles decorated with reproductions of some of his book covers.
President of ANCA Denise Sciandra was one of the first to develop the idea for the garden.
“It was actually my idea to build a garden,” Sciandra said. “As they were building the new library, an opportunity came up to build a garden and the idea was just perfect.”
Sciandra knew both Nixon and Politi, and said she is pleased to have the chance to honor Politi.
“He was a very gentle man,” Sciandra said. “A very humble man. It wasn’t about him. It was about the artwork. He was a preservationist – he preserved things through his art.”
Sciandra also said that Politi was an innovator when it came to the subjects in his books.
“He was ahead of his time when it came to the multicultural aspect of his books,” Sciandra said. “He knew and loved the children he wrote about. You just didn’t see that in the 1950s. In the ‘80s and ‘90s it became sort of mandated.”
Sciandra said she was also excited about the design of the garden, and said she feels Politi would have enjoyed it as well.
“I think it will be a quiet and beautiful place to be, and that would be in tune with what Leo would like,” Sciandra said. “It will commemorate the friendship between these two wonderful men. It will be a lovely place to be.”
Sciandra said the garden should be completed in early May. There is a dedication planned for June 2 at 9 a.m. and Politi’s family will be invited.