Jan Pieńkowski: Lifetime of Achievement

By Candy Gourlay

Jan Pieńkowski, enjoying tributes at the celebration of his Lifetime Achievement Award at the Garden Room of the Barbican in London. 

On Thursday, I was privileged to attend Booktrust's Lifetime Achievement Award Ceremony for Jan Pieńkowski, best-beloved illustrator in the UK of more than 140 books and a nightly presence during my (now grown) children's bedtime routines, way back when. It was a moving ceremony, not the least because Jan was diagnosed seven years ago with Alzheimer's –  despite which he has continued working, publishing a retelling of The Odyssey just two years ago. The retelling was authored by his partner of 57 years, David Walser, who spoke on Jan's behalf. David has also co-authored five new Meg and Mog stories (Penguin)  as well as The Glass Mountain (Walker), a collection of Polish tales.

'He has asked me to thank you (for the award),' David told a gathering that included the UK's top illustrators. 'Since being told about it, he has forgotten it many times so when I, or any friends in the know, remind him, it always comes as a lovely surprise. He has been able to enjoy the news many times over.'

Author David Walser, who has been Jan's partner for the past 57 years


'Each of our lives is an odyssey,' David said. 'But some are more adventurous than others. Knowing a little of Jan's life gives us an understanding of what is behind many of his pictures and his way of coping with violence, in the children's literature he has often illustrated.'

I was so moved by David's account of Jan Pieńkowski's story that I feel compelled to share some of it with the wider world here.

Jan was three years old, living in what is now the Republic of Belarus, when both Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland.

"The Pieńkowskis feared the Bolsheviks even more than the Germans, " David said, "so when the two enemies began to fire at each other the family piled into their horse-drawn carriage and set out for Warsaw, abandoning their home, their possessions and, hardest of all, their dogs."

A few years later Jan's grandmother in Warsaw, a leading gynaecologist who had supervised Jan's birth, was caught harbouring a Jewish medical colleague and a British pilot, whom she was nursing back to health. The Jewish doctor was shot on the spot, the pilot sent to a prisoner-of-war camp, and Jan's grandmother and her daughter who lived with her were sent to Auschwitz, where they died of typhoid. After the war, the pilot became a senior civil servant – and helped Jan to be given British citizenship.

“During the Warsaw Uprising of 1944 an eight-year-old Jan saw things that no child should ever witness. He spent time among wounded and dying. When a firebomb landed on the hospital across the road, Wanda covered Jan's head but could not shield his ears. Since then he has never been able to stand screaming or any loud noises.

When the war ended, the British government invited Polish soldiers and families to come to the UK if they preferred not to return to Communist Poland. On the ferry, Jan asked his mother if England was an island. 'Yes,' she replied. 'In that case,' he said. 'Let's never leave.'


Jan read classics at King's College Cambridge, where he made a name designing posters for clubs, societies and playhouses – which led to work designing for theatre and television as well as greeting cards. The TV work led to the idea for a book series starring Meg and Mog.

Jan told Alison Flood of the Guardian that the roots of Meg and Mog came from when a next door neighbour, in exchange for Jan drinking his milk, told him frightening Polish folk stories that inevitably included witches:

“She’d tell me these totally unsuitable stories, get to a cliffhanger – and stop,” he said. “I used to have terrible dreams, nightmares, of this witch, always chasing me and trying to put me in a pot, and 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, because I think Meg was really sublimating, isn’t that the word? Taking this terrible monster from my childhood and making it into a harmless toy.”

According to the article, Jan used to meet his co-author Helen Nicoll at Membury motorway services, near Marlborough, to work in a fenced-off part of the dining area. "The images (are) so joyfully vibrant, that a restaurant in a service station on the M4 feels far too prosaic as their birthplace!"


Jan won his first Kate Greenaway Medal in 1971 for The Kingdom Under the Sea and Other Stories (Jonathan Cape), eleven fairy tales from Eastern Europe and Russia, retold by Joan Aiken.

His second Greenaway Medal was won for Haunted House (Heinemann, 1979), which librarians described as 'the house of petrifying pop-ups'.

I posted video excerpts on Twitter of the moving tributes to Jan by judges Nicolette Jones, Smriti Prasadam-Halls and SF Said – you can watch them in the tweet compilation I've embedded below. (If you can't see it, visit it here)

Jan's life story and achievement struck such a chord with me. How many children, like Jan, are currently fleeing war and strife in this troubled world of ours? How many are being given safety, a home, a chance for their potential to blossom? Perhaps Jan's award will open eyes and hearts, perhaps right now, there is another Jan Pieńkowski being given a chance to blossom and flourish because somebody heard this story.

With salutations and respect to Jan and David. And thanks to Booktrust for making this happen.