An Interview with Jan Pieńkowski

posted in: Helen Nicoll, Jan Pieńkowski | 5

Today I am thrilled and humbled to be interviewing Jan Pieńkowski, twice winner of the Kate Greenaway Medal for illustration.

Jan Pieńkowski, Photo: Tim White

Jan, born in Warsaw in 1936, made his first book when he was 8. As a result of the Second World War his family had to leave Poland and eventually they settled in England. His first public forays into illustration came in the form of posters and stage design whilst studying Classics and English at University, before going on to co-found a greetings card company and providing graphics for a BBC children’s series, Watch!, where he met Helen Nicoll, his longstanding collaborator on the Meg and Mog books.

Although illustration started out as a hobby it soon became a full time occupation. In 1967 Jan’s first children’s book was published – he provided the illustrations for Annie Bridget and Charlie, a rhyming ABC for children written by Jessie Gertrude Townsend, and within just a few years his illustrations were a central part of any book loving childhood in the UK.

Image from Meg Goes To Bed, Copyright: Jan Pieńkowski

The Kingdom Under the Sea, Haunted House (both winners of the prestigious Kate Greenaway Medal), and the Meg and Mog series have all become classics. Indeed, in our home he’s probably one of the top 3 illustrators we own most books by. All this to say, when I was offered the chance to chat to Jan as part of the celebrations surrounding the publication of the latest book in the Meg and Mog series, Meg Goes to Bed (which I reviewed last week), I couldn’t believe my good fortune. So without further ado, here’s the interview!

Playing by the book: Hello Jan!

Jan Pieńkowski: Hello Zoe.

Playing by the book: It is with great delight and some trepidation that I meet you today. As a child myself I adored Meg and Mog, and later your illustrations in Joan Aiken’s The Kingdom Under The Sea transported me. Now my own children have fallen in love with your work and I’m able to enjoy it all over again. It’s such a treat and I can only thank you for the hours of fun you’ve given us and will no doubt continue to do so.

Jan Pieńkowski: Thanks for your encouragement: I still like my efforts on The Kingdom Under the Sea (except the cover –oh fatal error, melancholy’s child! as the Bard puts it.)

Playing by the book: Oh? The Kingdom Under the Sea – For me it is such an iconic image – it’s hard to imagine a different image on the front of the book…

Jan Pieńkowski: There may be some confusion: if the cover you mean is the Puffin one – the cave with the wolves, the rearing horse and the severed hand– then I completely agree with with with you, it is good.

Playing by the book: Yes, I do mean the Puffin one, but I see now that there was an earlier frontcover on the edition published by Jonathan Cape. It’s very interesting to see how your ideas about the cover image changed.

Playing by the book: As I said your books have provided many hours of fun – both in reading them and then playing inspired by them. Some of those hours of fun are documented on my blog, Playing by the book where I write about the books and play my children and I share. As a child what were your favourite games? What are the favourite games you play with your godchildren?

Jan Pieńkowski: [As a child] it was building ambitious structures with the carpenter’s -off-cuts, and then peopling them with beat-up pre-war lead soldiers and paper cutout figures . [With my godchildren] I used to do a lot of drawing and painting with children and they taught me every bit as much as I taught them.

Playing by the book: I’d definitely say the same of my children, and not just about drawing!

Playing by the book: I’d like to find out a little bit about the books that matter most to you. Fauré, Verdi, The Beatles – these are some of the composers and musicians you chose for your Desert Island Discs. If instead you had to choose eight books to provide you with solace and fill you with joy on a desert island, what eight books would you choose and why?

Jan Pieńkowski: The King James Bible, The Complete Works of Shakespeare, The two volumes of the Just William Omnibus, written by Richmal Crompton and illustrated by Thomas Henry, Homer’s Odyssey (in Greek), Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, The Oxford Book of English Verse, Edward Lear’s Complete Nonsense and other verse, and Virgil’s Georgics (in Latin). These are all my most read titles – I know chunks by heart so could have a break to observe the beauties of the island!

Playing by the book: Your selection of Desert Island Books has got me pulling some books I’ve not looked at for a long time off from my shelves. I would love to know a bit more about why the Just William stories, and the Homer and Virgil are so resonant for you.

Jan Pieńkowski: As for William – he has been my hero since I first came to this country in ’46 – and the embodiment of the boys who won the war, supported by the brilliant Henry pix which remind me how people used to look during the war. They are brilliantly written in clear and surprisingly sophisticated prose, which taught me a lot of English syntax. As for the classics I learned to read at school – they embody the birth of Europe, the only country I undisputedly claim as my own. Homer’s lyrical Greek is the language of romance, and adventure whereas Virgil’s lucid Latin uses poetry to instruct the reader in practical husbandry: be it beekeeping or growing vines. it is the language that built the Empire.

Playing by the book: Although I did Greek and Latin at school, I can no longer read them. But I have recently been enjoying Marcia Williams’ retelling of the Iliad and the Odyssey – my 5 year old loves it and you’ve given us the perfect excuse to read it again together. I wonder what you’d make of it…

Jan Pieńkowski: Thanks very much, I’ll try and have a look at it.

Jan Pieńkowski in his studio, Photo: David Mac

Playing by the book: I understand you have a lifelong interest in stage design – from at least your student days at Cambridge to more recently creating a pop up stage version of Sleeping Beauty at Disneyland, Paris. What piece of theatre do you long to design the set for and why?

Jan Pieńkowski: It would be Verdi’s Aida, I saw it first as a boy in the ruins of the great Baths of Caracalla in Rome – and it was love at first sight.

Playing by the book: I can well imagine how hearing such powerful music in such a magical setting could be the start of a lifelong love affair!

Panorama of the Thermae of Caracalla (Baths of Caracalla) in Rome, Photo: Chris 73

Playing by the book: My children and I have enjoyed many of Lotte Reiniger‘s animations and I see parallels in your work and also in your lives (she left the country of her birth as a result of the Second World War, was forced to live an itinerant life for several years, before settling in London). Did you ever meet Reiniger? If you could have met what would you have like to asked her?

Jan Pieńkowski: I’m a great admirer of her work– have seen some of her movies and what I admire most is the economy of means and the emotion which she manages to convey with her paper-cut characters. I was brought up with paper cuts in Poland and have illustrated quite a lot of my books with them – but of course, now that I have the computer I can’t resist straying from simplicity. I would have liked to have met Reiniger to ask her for a merciless critique of any of my books.

Image from Jan's latest book - In the Beginning, with text by David Walser. Copyright: Jan Pieńkowski

Playing by the book: Meg and Mog are characters you have lived with for almost 40 years – the eponymous Meg and Mog was first published in 1972, and this month has seen the release of your latest collaboration with Helen Nicoll, Meg Goes To Bed. I’m very intrigued as to what it feels like to have such a long, ongoing relationship with the characters from Meg and Mog. How has your relationship with Meg and Mog changed over the years? How do you find the freshness and – I hope – continued enjoyment in drawing and breathing life into these characters?

Jan Pieńkowski: I feel very lucky that Helen has put up with me all these years – each time we start on a new book it becomes a struggle and a battle – the course of collaboration never did run smooth – but somehow in the end our Muse has not deserted us in our hour of need – so far!

Playing by the book:The illustrations in Meg Goes to Bed are wonderful, but some of the lines which form the characters are less smooth than in older Meg and Mog books we have…

Jan Pieńkowski: How wonderful to have a reviewer who’s actually looked at the pictures! Oddly enough I spoke to Helen when we were working on the book about this very subject and said “I wonder how much my style is changing over the years and whether anybody is going to put the books together and notice the development process in the line work”. You may also have noticed that we are using more colours as the series marches on. Change is inevitable – the Great Masters have “an Old Style” perhaps humble illustrators are allowed to have one too!

Playing by the book: Oh yes! In this day and age I certainly like being reminded that the illustrations we’re looking at are drawn by real people rather than being computer generated according to a set of algorithms – it’s one of the many delights of reading a physical book rather than watching a children’s tv programme, film or computer game. And talking of illustration and different styles, on Playing by the book I’m always looking to learn about authors and illustrators from outside the anglophone book world. What Polish children’s authors and illustrators would you recommend to me and my readers?

Jan Pieńkowski: Try these:

  • Aleksandra Machowiak and Daniel Mizieliński
  • Marta Ignerska – fun and eccentric
  • Monika Hanulak – modest and clever
  • Ola Cieślak
  • Paweł Pawlak
  • Ignacy Czwartos – making fun of illness

  • Image from Necklace of Raindrops by Joan Aitken, Copyright: Jan Pieńkowski

    Playing by the book: Thanks Jan – these suggestions are wonderful (And dear blog readers – later in the week I’ll be featuring the work of some of these illustrators suggested by Jan, so stay tuned!) Finally, is there a question you always wish you had the opportunity to answer when being interviewed? A question that you don’t often, if ever, get asked? If so – please take the opportunity to ask and answer it here!

    Jan Pieńkowski: I suppose it might be: “When, if ever, did you feel that you belong to this country–was it after a year, 10 years, 50 years?” – now that there are so many immigrants coming to England this question might become a popular one.

    Playing by the book: Ah, yes, a great question – and I note your comment earlier “the birth of Europe, the only country I undisputedly claim as my own”… so what is your answer to this question of belonging, of feeling at home? If there was a point at which you felt at home in England what were the things that helped/made you feel at home?

    Jan Pieńkowski: I’m not sure but I think I do belong now. [As to things that made me feel at home] Having been to four English schools in the provinces, I finally came to London in 1949 and went to the Cardinal Vaughan School, Kensington where I stayed for five years. Because my class mates were all Catholic at last I felt like I belonged to a club. Moreover I was accepted and invited to their homes to play Monopoly, to birthday parties, or being taken for rides by their siblings on their scooters (then the coolest thing out).

    Playing by the book: What a lovely image to end with – you zooming around on the back of a friend’s scooter having a wonderful time. Thank you so much Jan, it really has been a tremendous pleasure talking with you.

    Jan Pieńkowski: Thank you Zoe.


    J reading Meg Goes to Bed

    If you’d like to find out more about Jan, there are several wonderful interviews elsewhere on the web.

  • In 2009 Jan was interviewed on Desert Island Disks – it’s a remarkable interview, insightful and thoughtful. I highly recommend this one!

  • A few days ago Jan was interviewed by The Sun newspaper – this interview has some interesting comments about the process of working on Meg and Mog books.

  • An interview at the Booktrust particularly focussing on Jan’s take on The Arabian NightsThe Thousand Nights and One Night, which is being reissued next week in the UK.

  • An interview from 2008 at The Guardian, with lots of examples of Jan’s illustrations

  • A interview in Poland from the Krakow Post which includes some more background on the Polish influences on Jan’s work

  • Do come back tomorrow when you’ll have a chance to win your own copy of Meg Goes to Bed by Helen Nicoll, illustrated by Jan Pieńkowski. In the meantime, let me know – have you read any books illustrated by Jan? What’s your favourite? What question would you have like to have put to Jan had you had the chance to interview him?

    5 Responses

    1. sandhya

      We, too, love the Just William books and Edward Lear here. They are so deliciously irreverent!

      The Meg and Mog books sound wonderful, Zoe. Maybe A is too old for them, but I shall look out for them regardless.

    2. Zoe @ Playing by the book

      Hi Sandhya, Yes, the Meg and Mog books are primarily aimed at preschoolers I’d say, but you could try Necklace of Raindrops of Kingdom under the sea – I think they’d better suit A’s age and I certainly enjoyed them when I was a kid.

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