A Farewell to Picture Book Greats : Jan Pieńkowski - Garry Parsons


Jan Pieńkowski

Jan Pieńkowski's illustrative style is immediately recognisable. 

From the bright colours and bold shapes of Meg and Mog to the colourful ink washes and marbled backgrounds of his paper cut-outs and silhouettes.

This post is a personal tribute to a childhood favourite illustrator who made a huge contribution to children's literature. 

Jan Pieńkowski's life journey gives a fascinating insight into his work as an illustrator. 

Born in Warsaw, Poland,  Jan was the only child of Jerzy and Wanda Pieńkowski. 
Living on a farm in rural Poland, Jan describes how he was introduced to the fables of a 'witch' type figure, similar to the Russian fairy tale character, Baba Yaga, by a neighbour who would look after him as a child. 

The neighbour would tell him scary stories which gave him terrible nightmares. The stories she told featured a witch who Pieńkowski dreamt was always chasing him and trying to put him in a pot.  "I think in a way she gave birth to Meg" he said.

The arrival of the Nazi's in Poland in 1939 forced the family to move to Warsaw and from there the family travelled around Europe, including Vienna, Italy and Germany, often living in extreme hardship and enduring the difficult and challenging experiences of being refugees in war torn Europe. 

In his interview on Desert Island Discs with Kirsty Young, Pieńkowski describes how screams and shrill sounds continued to frighten him into adult life. 

In 1946 the family arrived in Britain. 

Pieńkowski did well at school, learned Latin and Greek and went on to study classics and English at King's College, Cambridge. Whilst studying classics he was also busy illustrating for Granta magazine and designing posters for university theatre productions, his characteristic style shining through.

Pieńkowski's creative career moved into greetings card design, graphics, advertising and even drawing live on the popular BBC children's TV programme "Watch!". 

He was soon discovered by London book publishers including Walker Books, first for book covers and then later, children's book illustration where his familiar style became well known to children world wide.

Working with the writer Helen Nicholl, Pieńkowski's Meg and Mog were born. A series of graphically illustrated adventures of Meg, the hapless witch, and her stripy cat, Mog.

Pieńkowski won the Kate Greenaway award in 1971 with the children's book writer, Joan Aiken for The Kingdom Under The Sea, a book of eastern European fairy tales which featured his silhouettes and marbled backgrounds.

For me, the real prize in Pieńkowski's catalogue of outstanding work is Haunted House. A deliciously scary childhood favourite of mine and pioneering pop-up book, full of quirky illustrations and wonderfully original paper engineering.  Haunted House won him his second Greenaway award in 1979. 

Jan Pieńkowski published more than 140 books for children and in 2019 Pieńkowski was awarded the Book Trust Lifetime Achievement Award. 

A wonderfully original illustrator, writer and designer, thank you from me and the millions of others who have enjoyed and continue to enjoy your fun, daring and inspiring work.

See more of Jan's work including his sketchbooks, poster art and graphics here and listen to his interview with Kirsty Young on Desert Island Discs

                           Jan Pieńkowski, born 8 August 1936: died 19 February 2022.

Garry Parsons is an illustrator of children's books. 


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