The Secret Life of Bugs: Insects in Polish Children's Books
#language & literature
default, The Secret Life of Bugs:
Insects in Polish Children's Books, Illustration by Elżbieta Gaudasińska, photo: courtesy of the artist, gaudasinska_1.jpg
Insect lives aren’t so dissimilar to our own – they love, work, dance and sing just like us. The only difference is that they live in books as figments of the imaginations of Polish illustrators. What do they do when nobody's watching?
Illustrating tends to be a job for loners, but you can also come across harmonious artistic duos, such as Bożena Truchanowska and Wiesław Majchrzak, a married couple who co-created and co-funded the Polish School of Illustration. In their golden era between the 1960s and 1970s, the couple were among the most frequently awarded artists. Their books are carefully designed works of art – full of soft paintings and decorative elements. In spite of their differences in drawing techniques, they were able to create a harmonious and poetic message, which can be seen in their butterfly illustrations for Ewa Szelburg-Zarembina’s poem, for example. These insects can be also found in Kazimiera Iłłakiewiczówna’s Zwierzaki i Zioła (Animals and Herbs) illustrated by Janusz Grabiański, whose sophisticated and precise painting technique emphasises the sense of motion.
The visual artist and entomologist Jerzy Heintze was a great expert on the world of butterflies. He shaped the aesthetic illustrations of Hanna Zdzitowiecka’s Bardzo Dziwne Owady (Very Strange Insects). Its cover features an illustration of a puss moth with its characteristic, long, thin tails, called flagella, which it uses for defence.
The turn of the 1990s did not bode well for Polish illustration. Its development was halted because of the commercialisation of publishing houses, the disappearance of commissions, and the growing popularity of undemanding American aesthetics. However, at the beginning of the 21st century, graphic design in Poland started to regain its former splendour thanks to a new generation of artists. One of their representatives is Emilia Dziubak, the author of illustrations for the Polish edition of Mary Norton’s bestselling series about the Borrowers family, among others. These tiny human-like creatures living beneath the floors of old buildings have to be ready to face such dangerous situations as encounters with a hairy, brown moth. During her studies, Dziubak created an entire series about insects with human traits. Her narrative pieces bear the traits of various inspirations from classical painting, whereas the dynamics of the characters puts her in the same class as modern animators.
Retro Illustrations to Children's Books
Franciszka and Stefan Themerson stood out among the artists of pre-war Polish cinema. As well as producing films, they also had their own publishing house, Gaberbocchus Press in London. They used to call their unconventional publications the ‘best-lookers’ because they valued sophisticated editing over mass market appeal. But even earlier, Franciszka Themerson had designed the illustrations for her husband’s and Jan Brzechwa’s books. It was for Brzechwa’s poem Stonoga (Woodlouse) that she drew a simple and amusing illustration of a woodlouse which was in such a hurry that it got its many legs tangled. Although it must be said that woodlice are not insects, but crustaceans that feed on insects like cockroaches.
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‘Cockroaches are escaping through all of the holes! So change the letters into worms,’ encourages Jan Bajtlik in his Alphadoodler, winner of a Bologna Ragazzi Award in 2015. Let’s decode this title. An alphabet is a set of letters that are used to write down words, while a doodler is a device or a person whose aim is to draw, paint, sketch and create different shapes or textures. This activity-promoting publication is a follow-up to the author’s thesis for Professor Lech Majewski’s studio at the Academy of Fine Arts in Warsaw. Through this book, the illustrator had succeeded in combining education with the pleasure of creating. He even shared his great passion for climbing, as one of the charts shows a mountain landscape. Bajtlik’s aim was to draw attention to the decreasing interest in reading and the lack of critical thinking abilities in Polish society. And he reached this aim: Alphadoodler initiated a series of more than one hundred workshops for children that were conducted by the author not only in Poland but also in Germany and France.
Bees & co.
How much do we value the work of bees? How do they divide their chores in the hive? When is the right time for the circular dance, and when for the vibrating one? And what is the Guinness world record for the number of bee stings on a single person? The answers to these and many different questions can be found in the large-format album Pszczoły (Bees) by Piotr Socha (text by Wojciech Grajkowski). The book is full of curiosities and colourful illustrations stylised on pages similar to those of a botanical atlas. The graphic artist and beekeeper’s son first sketched the drafts with a pencil and only later scanned, arranged and coloured them in Photoshop. The result of this arduous work is 37 educational charts in which ecology meets humour. Pszczoły has built a cosy hive in the hearts of readers from more than ten countries, and there are plans for further conquests.
Selected works by Jan Bajtlik - Image Gallery
With her illustrations for the poetic text Na Jagody (Berry Foraging) by Maria Konopnicka, Zofia Fijałkowska takes us on a journey away from reality and to the fairy-tale world of insects. A mysterious forest on the Bug River is defended by a daring snail, a malicious spider and aggressive wasps which ‘play and blow their horns as loudly as possible, the echoes chase one another all around the forest… Don’t disturb them for they are armed!’ Besides the graphic design, Fijałkowska created the woodcuts and designed greeting cards and the bookplates.
As for horseflies, one flew into the collection of poems and folk songs entitled Idzie Rak Nieborak (Here Comes a Poor Crayfish). The author of this amusing portrait is Elżbieta Gaudasińska, an illustrator of children’s books. Her precise linework, unconventional associations and frequently grotesque deformations of reality made her an award-winning artist not only in Poland but also abroad. For many years, the artist has been proving that you can be both a good painter and a good illustrator at the same time.
Joanna Pollakówna’s Wesele Luletki (Luletka’s Wedding) is a dramatic love story with a happy ending. A tiny cricket with a fantastic ear for music disappears in mysterious circumstances moments before his wedding. The desperate Luletka, along with the wedding guests, look for him in the grass and by the pond, but her fiancé is nowhere to be found – he’s fallen into a mole’s burrow. After a spectacular action-packed rescue, he puts on his signature performance. Who could bring this humorous tale to life better than the first lady of Polish illustration? Olga Siemaszko hated Disney’s flat illustrations as a child – the heroes of her illustrations are authentic, her world characterised by vivid colours. She has charmed the readers of over 200 children’s books with her elegant and original style.
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Ewa Salamon takes us on a sentimental journey back in time to the years of her childhood. Her sepia illustrations delight readers with their folk motifs (cut-outs and ornaments), but at the same time, the repetitiveness of their shapes can be distressing. This style suits the mood of Jan Brzechwa’s poem Żuk (Beetle). The titular hero was rejected by a ladybird who instead chooses a spotted fly agaric mushroom as her husband, judging only by looks.
The tension, rhythm, minimalistic form and allusions are, in turn, characteristic features of Małgorzata Gurowska’s artworks. The artist, committed to the protection of animal rights, created a visual work for children’s poems written by Ludwik Jerzy Kern. The poet’s light mockery perfectly complements the illustrator’s strong linework, which can be seen, for example, in Etiuda Polska na Ż, Rz, Sz i Cz, a tale of a beetle who suddenly feels a paternal instinct. The effect is similar to that of Gurowska’s graphic design for Julian Tuwim’s works (Lokomotywa / IDEOLO – in which a seemingly innocent text takes on additional dimensions in the visual layer).
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The oldest illustration we're going to talk about comes from the interwar collection of poems Dylu, Dylu na Badylu written by Maria Dynowska. With just a couple of strokes, Anna Gramatyka-Ostrowska draws a contrast between an energetic dancing mosquito and his mature relative who cannot keep up with the younger family member. Illustrating children’s books was a break from the artist’s main occupation – painting. Her most frequent subjects were architectonic landscapes and realistic portraits in oil or watercolour. She also worked as a teacher for a few years, so she certainly attached great importance to the educational goal of creating illustrations for children.
An extraordinarily talented mosquito was given a special task from Igor Sikirycki – he was supposed to establish a forest orchestra. His attempts were supervised by one of the pioneers of Polish book illustration, Jan Marcin Szancer. The thin sharp strokes, pointed noses and charming nonchalance are inimitable. He illustrated more than 200 books for both children and adults.
Selection of Butenko's Illustrations – Image Gallery
Szancer was friends with Jan Brzechwa, and they collaborated on many projects. In his biographical works (Curriculum Vitae and Teatr Cudów [Theatre of Wonders]), Szancer described the surreal punchlines of Brzechwa’s poems, which made him laugh during the hard times of the occupation. He designed an original painting-like illustration for Bronka i Stonka (Bronka and the Potato Beetle) by combining plain realism with fairy tale idealisation. He also used to write his own fairy tales and essays on culture and everyday life. Szancer was a theatre enthusiast as well as a stage designer, which is why his drawings are like plays with precisely arranged elements performed on the page. The artist was also interested in photography, which helped him present potato beetles from a frog’s point of view. In his illustrations, the artist gave these mere pests human traits.
A team game
The immense liveliness of Szancer’s illustrations can also be observed in Brzechwa’s collection Od Baśni Do Baśni (From Fairy Tale to Fairy Tale). The heroes of one of the poems are the soldiers of a royal army. There is Field Marshal Horsefly, General Beetle leading a squadron, parachuting fleas, armoured bumblebees, cockroaches, and King Stag Beetle with a court of ladybirds. Both its range of colours and expression are enthralling. Just like in Pchła Szachrajka (Adventures of a Cheating Flea), there are many renowned insect individuals, even though the titular flea, who wants to be an opera diva, has to be content with just being a celebrity. Again, the artist proved that combining humour and imagination can create a work of art.
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We hope you enjoyed this dive into the undergrowth. You’ll be pleased to know that it was inspired by a 2019 publication that showcases all this and more: Captains of Illustration: 100 Years of Children’s Books from Poland. Edited by Anita Wincencjusz-Patyna, it was created by the Adam Mickiewicz Institute and the Dwie Siostry Publishing House.
Originally written in Polish, April 2018; translated by AS, April 2018; updated May 2020
'Captains of Illustration: 100 Years of Children’s Books from Poland' – Image Gallery