‘Oscar Seeks A Friend’ & The Tip of the Polish Kid Lit Iceberg

Yesterday, we featured a talk with Lantana publisher Alice Curry about the forthcoming picture book Oscar Seeks A Friend.

Today, Acclaimed Polish children’s author and illustrator Paweł Pawlak and award-winning translator Antonia Lloyd-Jones — translator of Pawlak’s Oscar Seeks A Friend, answer a few questions about this book, and the landscape of Polish children’s literature, for World Kid Lit Month: 

I assume the pun was in the original (“I stopped dead”). What about the original text — about its style, language, perhaps its gentleness — did you particularly want to bring across? 

Antonia Lloyd-Jones: Yes, you’re right – in Polish there are several puns involving words a skeleton might use, but here instead of sounding scary, they sound sweet. The phrase “I stopped dead” is my translation of the Polish “zamarłem” – literally “I died”, but metaphorically it’s like saying “I died on the spot”. The skeleton also says that with a tooth missing he looks “fatalnie” – this word just means bad, dismal, awful, etc, but of course it could mean “fatal” too. The style is perfect for a skeleton who isn’t at all frightening – I did want to make sure that balance of gentleness and strangeness was kept; his world of the dead could appear sinister, with its black backgrounds and old-fashioned interiors, while the girl’s living world is out of doors, sunny and brightly-coloured.

I should say something about the skeleton boy’s name. In Polish he’s called Ignatek, which is the diminutive for the name Ignacy, which corresponds to Ignatius, but is still a fairly common boys’ name in Poland, without sounding particularly old-fashioned. But “gnat” means a bone, so Ignatek includes a pun, as well as being a perfectly reasonable name for a nice little boy. I suggested calling him Scully, or Boniface (which, like Ignacy, is a Catholic name), but Alice Curry, the inspired editor who runs Lantana Publishing, wasn’t convinced. She wanted to call him Iggy, but I wasn’t sure about that – it had no “bone” pun, and it made me (being middle-aged) think of Iggy Pop, who is scary but not sweet. Then Alice and her colleagues had a great idea. They’d bought the book on the strength of a rough translation from the Polish publisher, in which the character was called “Ossie”, picking up on the bone connection, and that made them think of Oscar. I agreed that it’s a very good name for our hero.

What made you decide, Yes, yes, I’d like to translate this little book?

AL-J: I was lucky enough to be asked to translate this book, but I jumped at it, because I already knew Paweł Pawlak’s work and am a huge fan. I’m thrilled that Lantana noticed just how unusual and brilliant his work is. He has a range of styles, but he specialises in detailed collages, and a huge amount of work goes into every single picture. As you can see here, a large part of the narrative is in the pictures: the contrast between the worlds of the dead and the living, in terms of colour, location, and objects depicted – they speak volumes. Paweł sees the story, pictures, graphic design and entire concept of each of his books as an integral whole, and prefers any foreign editions to stick to his original plan in every respect. Knowing the UK market and the likely expectations of British readers, at first Alice considered moving some of the dialogue onto the spreads that have none, but in the end she kept to Paweł’s original text layout. I think that was a wise decision, because those pages don’t need words, but just a slow, careful look at the scene. The lack of text makes us stop and gaze at it, losing ourselves in it for a while as we pick out the details.

I am hoping to interest publishers in Pawlak’s other books. His latest, with text by Justyna Bednarek, is Pan Stanisław odlatuje (“Mr Stanley Flies Away”), the exquisite story of an old gentleman who fills a blow-up mattress with helium and flies over the city, higher and higher, seeing not just the houses and parks, but his whole past life go by; eventually he finds he can fly on his own, without the mattress, because now he has a little propeller on his back, as do the other figures flying around him. It’s a gentle, subtle way of telling a child about the departure of a beloved grandfather figure, up to another realm. These illustrations are watercolours, rather than collages. Here’s an example.

With his wife, Ewa Kozyra, Paweł Pawlak has produced a series of three nature guides, all based on the wildlife in their own suburban garden: one featuring birds, one butterflies, and the third (in production) to feature small animals. These books include actual photographs, collages, watercolour paintings and pictures of life-size models. Here’s the blackbird, for example:

I’d also like to find a publisher for “The Cat Who Wagged his Tail”, the delightful story of a cat who wants to go to school, but the school is for dogs only. So he makes a dog mask and practices wagging his tail. All goes well until the class is taken on a cat-chasing field trip. It’s a sweet story about diversity and the importance of accepting others. And it’s told through funny, detailed collage pictures where there’s lots to explore, as well as comical text including puns. Here are some scenes from the dogs’ school.

This is just the tip of the iceberg as far as Pawlak’s work goes, and I very much hope to translate more.

Do you read much Polish children’s literature? If yes, are there ways in which you feel it differs from English, French, other children’s literatures you’ve seen? 

AL-J: Yes, I try to keep up with the latest children’s publications, mainly via the Polish section of IBBY. Polish children’s literature is distinct in several ways. First of all, there are lots of superb illustrators, all of whom belong to a long tradition of excellent art for children. I have many favourites, but to pick out just two examples across the generations, I recommend the work of Józef Wilkoń (now aged 89):

and Katarzyna Bogucka (aged 35):

Polish children’s books have made a strong impression in English in recent years thanks to the work of publisher Dwie Siostry, whose beautiful hand-drawn Maps(by Aleksandra and Daniel Mizieliński) have conquered the world. There is a wealth of excellent books waiting to be discovered, and I’m thrilled that there’s a new wave of interest among British and American publishers, such as Lantana, who want to find and publish the best contemporary children’s books in translation.

Stories told in rhyming verse are a popular tradition in Polish children’s books, where classic authors include the poet Julian Tuwim (Mr Miniscule and the Whale, illustrated by Bogdan Butenko and published by Book Island). Needless to say, they’re a challenge to translate, but a lot of fun. Authors such as Przemysław Wechterowicz produce fun rhyming verses (e.g. Boom Boom Boom, illustrated by Marianna Oklejak and published by Salariya).

Polish middle-grade novels have a lot to offer too. Sometimes the settings of the stories are firmly Polish, which can be an added attraction rather than an obstacle. Mostly these novels are universal, including stories that try to help children with family, social or environmental issues that may be affecting their lives, adventure stories that may be serious and thrilling or comical and fantastical, or pure entertainment such as stories about animals or crime-solving detectives.

And a question for Paweł Pawlak himself. What are your favourite Polish books for young readers, and maybe a sentence on what’s special about each of them?

Pawel Pawlak: My choice is very much guided by my own profession – as at heart I’m an illustrator, first I look at books, and only then do I read them. It’s their form – thepictures, the graphic design, the structure and pace of the book as a whole – which creates the basic “story” that catches my attention. My favourite books are the ones where all these elements of artistic language interweave with the text to produce a new quality, creating a vivid, absorbing world full of emotion and atmosphere that I want to dive right into. I gain this sort of satisfaction from books produced by the great “founding fathers” of Polish illustration (Bohdan Butenko, Janusz Stanny and Józef Wilkoń) and also from the work of many of the younger illustrators (including Joanna Concejo, Maria Dek, Emilia Dziubak, Monika Hanulak, Daniel de Latour, Marianna Sztyma and Agnieszka Żelewska).

So three recent publications spring to mind.

The first is Brzuchem do gory(“Belly Up”), written and illustrated by Urszula Palusińska, which I rate highly for the accuracy and visual allure of its scenes from a hot, idle, summer holiday. The images Palusińska uses to build her story are both simple and sophisticated; they’re surprising, and once you’ve seen them, you can’t imagine them being any different.  The spreads are arranged in pairs, with one showing the characters as seen from above, and the other showing the same scene from their point of view: the sun shining through a straw hat, the tree tops, or a night sky. In this book apparently run-of-the-mill scenes are transformed into the universal tale of a random moment, of some people and their presence on earth.











The second was also written and illustrated by one person, Marianna Oklejak, and it’s called Cuda wianki (“Polish Folklore for Young and Old”), produced with true brilliance. The illustrations are full of shapes and colours, and though they’re derived from the traditional designs that feature in various parts of Poland, here they’ve been used to build a vibrant new world swaying to a modern rhythm.

My third choice is Prawdziwa bajka (“A True Tale”) by Mikołaj Łoziński, with illustrations and graphic design by Marta Ignerska. The artistic language she uses to tell the story is bold and provocative, sometimes bordering on the abstract, and that, along with the consistent way in which it is applied, is what I find so attractive about this book.

This last question was translated from the Polish by Antonia Lloyd-Jones.

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