February 28, 2022
Tributes pour in for ‘Meg & Mog’ illustrator Jan Pieńkowski
by Tom Clayton
Jan Pieńkowski, whose mischievous visuals illuminated the lives of millions of children, has died at the age of 85.
He was best known as the illustrator of the best-selling Meg & Mog series written by the late Helen Nicoll, and posthumously continued by Pieńkowski and his partner David Walser.
The Guardian‘s tribute carries a line from a previous interview with Pieńkowski which says the series “gave him the opportunity to turn monsters from his childhood into harmless toys.”
Those monsters loomed larger than most. Forced to flee the Nazis from his home country of Poland in 1939 at the age of three, the Pieńkowskis moved around Europe under the shadow of World War Two before eventually settling in England. The Times‘s obituary—which praises his “stunning silhouettes in dozens of titles”—reports that his love of illustration was fueled by the cut-out technique taught to him by “an exhausted Polish insurgent” in an air raid shelter in Warsaw.
Using the technique that would become his signature, Jan illustrated for Granta magazine and BBC children’s TV before turning full-time to books. His instantly recognisable style earned him countless commissions: as well as Meg & Mog he went on to illustrate over 150 works for both children and adults—including my personal favourite, the extravagant pop-up masterpiece, Haunted House.
During his lifetime Pieńkowski racked up a sizeable number of accolades, not least being nominated as the UK’s entrant for the prestigious Hans Christian Anderson Award in 1982 and 2008. He died from dementia complications on February 19th.
A Guardian editorial from yesterday with the headline “Funny, frightening, brilliant” does a fine job of summing up Pieńkowski’s genius:
Like all great children’s storytellers or illustrators, [he] instinctively understood that fear is an unavoidable and necessary part of childhood—and that how a child’s emotions are contained and held is crucial when it comes to an individual’s learning to operate in the world.
As our continent faces another potentially catastrophic conflict, is it time for our leaders to reflect on their recent attitudes towards refugees? Could Pieńkowski’s life story even help to inform that thinking? One thing is for sure: the world would have been a less vibrant place without his spooky, surprising and delightful pictures.
Tom Clayton is publishing executive at Melville House UK.