Iwona Chmielewska is a globally famous illustrator and writer. Her picture books have received numerous awards and have been published in South Korea, China, Japan, Taiwan, Mexico, and Germany. Her book Eyes received the Oscar of the children's book world – the Bologna Ragazzi Award.
A Polish illustrator, the author of the worldwide known children's books.
She was born in 1960. She graduated in graphic design from the Fine Arts Department at the Mikołaj Kopernik University in Toruń, where she now lives and works: she teaches Creative Writing at the Department of Fine Arts. She is a laureate of numerous international awards. One of the most important so far was the Golden Apple Award of the Book Illustration Biennale in Bratislava for Thinking ABC, a book that teaches Korean children English through imagery and she also received the 'illustrator's Oscar' , that is the Bologna Ragazzi Award for Eyes, a beautiful fairy tale in which the eyes are a guide to explore and experience the world through our senses.
She is the only Polish author to have a fan club in South Korea. She often visits there and teaches classes for students in Seoul, and she meets with her readers, who have discovered a great deal about Polish culture and the history of Toruń, the background of one of her books. About being a writer and her unwavering popularity in far-off Asia, Iwona Chmielewska spoke to Gazeta Wyborcza in an interview:
Apparently, fans eagerly await every one of my new books. Once, I was even recognized on the street in Seoul, a city of nearly 20 million inhabitants, and passers-by wanted to be photographed with me. I have had many ‘meet the author’ sessions in South Korea, Seoul and other distant places, in libraries, museums, bookshops. I am always surprised by the number of readers who not only listen and observe but also note down what I say, and ask very interesting questions. They come prepared, often from distant places, just to see me and participate in the sessions. Sometimes there are unexpected situations like when entire families come and recite my works from memory or when a teacher from outside of Seoul plays a musical piece that was composed in honour of one of my books, which was very important to her (…)
In her books, Chmielewska poses fundamental questions to readers from every country and of all ages. They are intelligent, tasteful, graphically refined and very well-designed. The books feature short, concise texts and images that suck the reader into a form of visual play.
Blumka’s Diary explores Warsaw through the prism of Janusz Korczak. Connecting fact and fiction, reminding us about the fate that met the children from the House of Orphans, the Old Doctor and Mrs. Stefa. The book was co-published by the German publishing house Gimpel Verlag and was released on the 70th anniversary of Janusz Korczak’s death. In an interview with Sebastian Frąckiewicz, Iwona Chmielewska admits that Blumka’s Diary changed a great deal in her professional life and significantly improved her situation in Poland. The book came out simultaneously in Poland and in Germany, and copyrights to the book were also purchased in South Korea. On the website clubmamy.pl, the author explains the importance of images in a picture book:
Illustrations often lead to a more intriguing, separate story that diverges from the text. In order to bring out new meaning from the words and not impose any interpretation of the text on the reader. I’m not too fond of perfect images, in which the artist displays their virtuosity, leaving no room for the reader’s imagination. Such ideal illustrations are something concluded – you can admire them, but you cannot enter into a dialogue with them. Picture books should be made in such a way so that the readers can become their co-author, so that they are given the chance to go through some very intimate emotions, so that they can confront their problems or fears. Images let us omit the trivialization of language , therefore we can touch upon subjects we don’t necessarily want to speak out about. Images can often replace a thousand words. The text in such books is usually short and simple. You need to connect different pieces of the illustrations, add what is merely suggested, let yourself join the visual-wordplay, sometimes search for an answer between the words or guess the hidden meaning, somewhere behind the drawn wall or window.
'Such books ennoble children’s literature’
In 2011, the book A House of the Mind: Maum with Iwona Chmielewska’s illustrations and Kim Hee-Kyung’s text (published by Changbi Publishers, South Korea) received the Grand Prize at the Bologna Ragazzi Award in the category: Non-Fiction. The jury gave credit to the publication for its abstract, geometrical forms created with painterly mastery.
The allusory illustrations establish a philosophical dialogue with the protagonists, yet the 16th century abstract paintings allow us to see nooks and behind closed chamber doors. All in this completely different, unpretentious book – from gestures, through dreams and memories, up to the featured quotes – is filled with a specific vision of the world. A vision that is extremely intense and yet somewhat diluted – a bit like the space inside these illustrations and likewise – demanding time for contemplation. Books such as this one ennoble children’s literature. They show that Gaston Bachelard’s formula of ‘the right to dream’ consists of hard work, a clear vision and extensive scientific research.
In 2014, the first Polish edition of Two People was published, a book about relationship that was previously released by Sakeyjul publishing house in South Korea in 2008. The same publisher also released Chmielewska’s other book: Blue Stick, Blue Box. Two People was also released in Spain. In Poland, you can also come across The Four Directions of Time, a vivid story about Torun’s history, one of the oldest towns in Poland as well as In A Pocket, about what is hidden in children’s pockets. On Those Who Self-Develop and Four Ordinary Bowls can also be found in Polish bookstores. "You can write a book about anything. And everything might come in handy. Even four ordinary bowls..." Chmielewska begins her artistic/literary story. This is a simple book, ascetical in form and ecological in spirit, about an important social issue, that is, the distribution of goods in the world.
Awarded with ‘the illustrator’s Oscar’, Eyes is a story about the art of looking and exploring the world through the senses, but also about their lack and limitations.
‘Those who see don't even know how precious a treasure they get’ – this is the opening quote of this beautifully illustrated fairy tale in which the eponymous eyes are a guide to exploring and experiencing the world. They open the doors of the imagination, they warn and save us. They are a treasure that can be easily lost. While creating the book,Chmielewska wrote the Korean word foreyes in Braille on one of the pages.
The author skilfully shows children how those for whom eyesight is not the most important sense perceive the world, indicating that happiness does not have to depend on its presence.
The abc.de book (2015) is a multilingual illustrated dictionary about German culture and an ambitious graphic alphabet, which introduces readers to the world of art, literature, science and philosophy. It's also a tribute to German culture and a story about European history and identity. The Warstwy Publishing House called it a 'thinking alphabet' enriched by the context of French, English and Polish, which makes the publication universal and open to readers of all ages. It draws the reader into an intellectual game and entertains with associations. In the introduction to the book, Chmielewska writes:
Regelinda – a smiling Polish girl from the cathedral in Naumburg. You will find her in this book. As a Pole, I also smile at the not-so-foreign language and culture that is close to me. I owe a lot to my grandmother Hulda Jaeger, who taught me German poems and sung ‘Stille Nacht’ to sleep, not only in winter. She was a simple weaver from Łódź, but you will find her in this book too. Granny, you probably didn’t expect this.
Her book Dopóki Niebo Nie Płacze (Until The Sky Cries),published in 2016, presents a picture of a world that will soon be annihilated – the world of the Jewish inhabitants of Lublin before the outbreak of World War II. The artist selected a few poems by Józef Czechowicz to pair with black-and-white photographs taken just before the Holocaust and found many years later. Then the characters from the photos came to life with a palette of subtle colours and were set in motion. Sixteen pictures were included in the book in total. The author admitted that 'a strange kind of tension had developed between these photographs, the people on them and me'. There are other forms of tension in the book. They form at the point of contact between various languages, which take on different meanings within one narrative. And so the boy from the photo, whose face is obscured by a shadow, in the illustration lies carefree in a hammock suspended in the clouds. Czechowicz's Kołysanka (Lullaby) - accompanies an image of a mother hugging a baby –it may have turned out to be their last lullaby. Rather than building nostalgia, the author's unprecedented sensitivity causes the book to restore lost memories and create a new understanding.
illustration for children
Obie (Both) was created by Iwona Chmielewska (illustrations) and Justyna Bargielska (storyline) and published by the recently founded Wolno Publishing House. The book won readers’ hearts with a multidimensional portrait of motherhood and the authentic feelings of mothers, without saccharine and unnecessary embellishments. The relationship between a mother and a daughter is always complex and almost never easy. In Obie, Bargielska and Chmielewska conveyed it perfectly with the use of words and pictures. It's a story about the ups and downs of motherhood, full of symbolism and insinuations, in which the image and text evoke strong emotions, and reading acquires a theatrical dimension. The authors have shown that motherly love can be difficult, but it's always limitless.
In 2018, IwonaChmielewska created two new books – Kołysanka Na Cztery (Lullaby For Four) and Jak Ciężko Być Królem (How Hard It Is to Be a King). The first one is a lullaby in the form of a picture book, created to help readers calm down. The baby is being lulled to sleep by beloved animals, toys and objects, which gradually slow down, fall silent and fall asleep.
How Hard It Is to Be a King is a book based on selected fragments of the children’s book King Matt the First, written by Janusz Korczak and visually interpreted by Iwona Chmielewska. Is it easy to rule? Why, how and for whom is it done? How should the state be arranged so that people in it are happy? – These are the questions the hero of Janusz Korczak's book is trying to answer. Chmielewska follows Korczak and reminds readers how important it is to retain an open, childlike perspective on the world.
Author AL, July 2015, Translated by: Zuzanna Wiśniewska, July 2015. Updated: HSz, October 2019.