'It never occurred to me that I'd do anything else': BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award winner Jan Pienkowski on a life in books

Published on: 08 May 2019 Author: Emily Drabble

The legendary Jan Pienkowski has won the 2019 BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award. Emily Drabble spoke to him - along with his partner David Walser and old university friend Nick Tucker - about his influences, favourite books and collaborations.

Jan Pienkowski

Photograph: David Bebber

How did your early childhood experiences impact on your work as an illustrator?

Jan: I was born in 1936 and it's difficult to know at this stage of your life what influences you, exactly, but I was introduced to fantastic Polish folk tales by a woman called Pani Kobuszewska, who lived next door to us in Poland. She used to make me drink boiled milk to protect me from TB. I hated it, so she used to stop on a cliffhanger, just like Scheherazade in The Thousand Nights and One Night, and I had to take a gulp of horrid hot milk before she would carry on.

That is where I heard of the witch Baba Yaga. I used to have terrible dreams, nightmares, of this witch, always chasing me and trying to put me in a pot. You know how you can't run in a dream, you sort of freeze? It was all like that.

I think in a way she gave birth to Meg, taking this terrible monster from my childhood and making it into a harmless character. This same lady next door used to make new curtains out of stout white paper every year, which must have gone into my brain.

In 1944, when Warsaw was being destroyed by the German army, we sometimes went down to an air raid shelter. On one occasion a Polish soldier made a lasting impression on me by cutting out figures from paper to entertain us and take our minds off the sounds of explosions outside. I was mesmerized and soon forget about the bombing.

Papercuts are a form of Polish folk art and eventually I started cutting out paper figures myself. I actually made my first picture book for my father's birthday when I was seven years old!

What were your favourite books and experiences of reading as a child?

Jan Pienkowski

Photograph: David Bebber

Jan: My very first memory is having my rest in the hammock after lunch and my mum reading to me, when I was four-ish. This was just after we had to abandon my first home in Poland when I was around three years old, when the Germans and Soviet Union invaded. We had to leave all our possessions and even, hardest of all, our dogs.

We then moved to Warsaw but had to flee there as it was flattened, then to Bavaria and Italy and finally to England when I was 10. I spoke no English but a year and a half later I had passed my 11 plus.

I loved Alice in Wonderland by Lewis Carroll - with pictures by John Tenniel - and the Just William books by Richmal Crompton. These are still my favourite books, particularly the audio version of Just William read by Martin Jarvis, which I chose as my additional book when I went on Radio 4's Desert Island Discs.

Why did you become a children's books author and illustrator?

Jan: I always wanted to be an artist. I think from the start it never occurred to me that I'd do anything else. But I studied classics and later English at King's College Cambridge. At that time there wasn't the opportunity to study art at university, but I threw myself into poster designs and making sets for university productions. I also co-founded the greetings card company Gallery Five and started illustrating books in my spare time. This soon took all my time!

I also designed books, including John Burningham's. I started working with Joan Aiken in 1968, which is when my silhouette style was born. I felt nervous about how my drafts were going to be received for our book A Necklace of Raindrops, so I decided to black out the characters I'd drawn, leaving the rest of the picture in colour.

You can see I haven't got English features, so in a way if you do silhouettes that makes it anonymous, not obviously wrong. Also, you can read into it your own interpretation. You only see the profile, so really it's all to do with movement - the movement expresses everything.

Jan Pienkowski

Photograph: David Bebber

David, what it was like to work with Jan?

David: Jan and I have never worked side by side. We have been together for 56 years but he isn't at all easy to work with and works much better on his own! But he does like discussing everything with his studio assistant - for the last 15 years that has been Lois Bülow-Osborne.

With one of our latest books of Polish tales, The Glass Mountainit was very interesting. Although I've translated for other collaborations with Jan, for example, the stories of Perrault and Grimm fairy tales and The Nutcracker, as yet I only speak a very little Polish, so for this book I read all the English versions I could find and then I asked Jan to tell me the stories in his own words. Then I wrote my own versions and my ideas.

I suppose I'm doing what storytellers over the ages have always done - add little bits, take away other bits and change things to suit them - so I took the liberty of doing that. Then Jan created his illustrations and also changed bits too.

In the case of Meg and Mog, it was a bit of a difficult transition to working with me. He'd worked with Helen Nicoll on 19 books from 1972 until Helen died in 2012, so I had to ease myself in. I came up with the initial ideas of the stories. Jan would then take very big liberties and change my words - but quite often I was delighted to see they got back closer to what I wanted by the end.

Jan Pienkowski and David Walser

Photograph: David Bebber

Similarly, when he created Meg and Mog with Helen, they used to write the stories together. They used to usually meet at the motorway service station halfway to Marlborough and they would work undisturbed in a fenced-off part of the dining area. Jan and she would really think out the story together, with Jan making a big contribution. It's difficult to describe it; she and Jan wrote the story and then he illustrated it. It's hard to analyse who did what because it was all weaved together, a collaboration between very good friends.

I've learned so much from Jan. He has been a terrible procrastinator and then often done things right at the last minute. At university, he would often work all night and on one occasion, as dawn was breaking, he propped up the artwork vertically to look at it from a distance. The ink ran. Rather than start again, he made a feature of it. 

The lesson he taught me, which was absolutely invaluable, was that when you make a mistake, don't fight against it. Go with it and take advantage of it. Never a week passes when that doesn't help me!

Our latest book was published in March this year, The Odyssey, and it's one of my absolute favourites.

Some of your children's books illustrations are a little bit terrifying. Is it okay for children's books to be a bit scary?

Jan Pieńkowski

Photograph: David Bebber

Jan: I think it is! 

David: I think that Jan is exceptional amongst illustrators in how he feels and copes with violence. There's an awful lot around. Jan does it in a way that children can accept and not have nightmares. 

Nick: Very scary books usually have no sense of humour - it's all menace. But Jan has always got this puckish sense of humour so the child knows it's scary, but it's not too scary!

Your illustrations still look radical today. Can you give us some idea of the reaction to your revolutionary style for children's books?

David: The reaction I most remember is from Jan's cards. When I first joined Gallery Five in 1962, people from all over the world told us this was the best greeting card company in the world! And as Jan did all the cards, that was all praise for Jan! The style was there, the lovely colours. The cut outs are just incredible. I've seen Jan cut out a whole horse... you'd be surprised if it didn't start neighing!

Let's talk about the pop-up revolution of Haunted House, which won a Kate Greenaway medal.

Jan: It was made with pop-up book creator Waldo Hunt - you can read the obituary I wrote about Waldo when he died in 2010 aged 88. He had a flair for finding talented paper engineers and creative young people who invented new ways of making their books fresh and alive. Waldo thought of his authors, artists and paper engineers as part of his family. While it lasted, it was great for those whom he included in his magic circle.

Nick: If I had to pick my favourite book of Jan's, it would have to be Haunted House. Before that, pop-up books were cheap and nasty and made without love. But because Haunted House was created by someone with such skill and taste, to me it brought back a disgraced genre!

Jan Pieńkowski

Photograph: David Bebber

Your illustrations of Bible stories are legendary. How important is it to retell these stories and illustrate them for new generations?

David: Our Bible stories book was based on the King James Bible for the 400th anniversary. I did very little - I shouldn't have been credited for the writing! But I think the illustrations are just brilliant.

Nick: Because these two are believers. The book was created with heart rather than atheistic reserve.

Why do babies and young children need amazing books?

David and Jan: It opens their minds. It makes them realise the world is something more. It's most children's first experience of culture and the building blocks for life.

Nick: If you watch TV and play Playstation or whatever, it's always moving and changing. A book stays the same, but you change. You go back to the books and see different things and that's a process that can go on for your whole life. Children will absorb them, particularly pictures.

David and Nick, how proud are you that Jan has won the Lifetime Achievement Award?

Jan Pieńkowski and David Walser

Photograph: David Bebber

David: Jan hasn't got a big ego, but I think it's wonderful. Jan is an exceptional children's artist and writer. I think he's given a huge number of children a lot of pleasure and perhaps it will go on long after we're all dead. I'm so glad this recognition has come in time.

One thing I've noticed over the years is that Jan never treats children as children. It wouldn't occur to him to talk down to them, he just behaves perfectly normally. He has painted wonderful murals with children. When he works with children, he's one of them.

Nick: I endorse that. I'll also say that Jan is a sweet natured person. Based on my experience, my children loved him. I've seen him work with school kids on murals and they take to him. He's such a sweet natured, benign person. Jan has always been very modest but we're all very excited about him getting this award!

Thank you to Jan Pienkowski, David Walser and Nick Tucker for this interview.

Note: As Jan gets easily tired these days, some of his responses have been taken from previous sources (including the introduction from Glass Mountain: Favourite Tales from Poland by David Walser and Jan Pienkowski, a Penguin interview, and Radio 4's Desert Island Discs), mixed in with actual conversation and David and Nick's memories on the day.

Authors and illustrators pay tribute to Jan

Take a look inside some of Jan Pienkowski's books

The cover of In The Beginning
Meg and Mog
An illustration from The Glass Mountain: Tales from Poland
A page from Haunted House
An illustration from A Necklace of Raindrops
The cover of In The Beginning

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Meg and Mog

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An illustration from The Glass Mountain: Tales from Poland

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A page from Haunted House

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An illustration from A Necklace of Raindrops

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Lifetime Achievement Award 2021

The BookTrust Lifetime Achievement Award is given to a children's writer or illustrator whose body of work, in the opinion of the panel of judges, merits recognition for a lifetime's achievement in children's literature.

More about the award and this year's winner