Children's Literature Interest Group: Interview with Jan Pienkowski & David Walser

Walser.jpgPienkowski.jpgIn your new Bible story collection In the Beginning you and David Walser have adapted the text from the King James Bible. I know it was originally meant to be understood by every 'ploughboy', do you think it is as accessible to children today?

JP: I was first exposed to the King James Version when I came to England in 1946, not knowing the language. I remember going to the scripture class once a week when Miss Smith, the assistant matron, would read one of the stories all in the King James version. As I didn't know any other English I accepted it as being the norm and have loved it ever since. My two Christmas books Christmas and The First Noel as well as Easter all use the King James version abridged by me with help from my editor. In the Beginning is my first biblical collaboration with David who is responsible for virtually the whole text. Since I am a Catholic and was brought up with Latin the Bible in English is a piece of cake and especially as so many common phrases and sayings are based upon it. Although some of the more abstruse expressions have been left out in our book, none of the words have been modernised.

DW: I hope it does not sound cynical if I say that it was never understandable by 'every ploughboy', any more than it is to every modern youth. Trying to put it into modern English only makes it more difficult to believe and understand. Best to say, as I did to the children I read it to at our local Primary School, 'don't worry about understanding it all. It's mysterious, full of good stories and the words are rather like poetry '– which is the subject I do with them.

Did the rhythm of the words impact on your artwork?

JP: Yes. Every year I go to Quarr Abbey, a Benedictine monastery on retreat and I listen to all the psalms sung in Latin and I have my favourites that I endorsed by hearing them sung in English in London churches so the rhythms are embedded in my mind.

Did David adapt the text to fit your artwork or did you illustrate his text?

JP: A bit of both - we have worked together on several books

DW: Jan would sometimes say to me: you have to lose some more text; there's too much on this page and it's spoiling the look and design. On the one page where it was impossible to cut any more text – the story of Samson's wedding party where he makes a wager to decide who will pay for the wedding garments - there IS too much text and it spoils the design.

Is it easier to work with a writer that you know well, or to be slightly removed from the author?

JP: Yes, for me, I think, it is easier for me to write with a writer I know well - I've known Helen Nicoll since the early '70s, when I worked on her television programme Watch! and I did drawings on the screen live which was quite hair raising at times and we seemed to make a good team so we embarked on the Meg & Mog series. Because we get on so well, the books benefit from both our ideas.

Most of the artwork in the book has a very modern feel and palate. It is also computer generated and reminiscent of comic strip heroes, such as Dan Dare. I wondered what your reason for this was?

JP: We are into forbidden fruit here. When I was a boy at my first boarding school, comics were not allowed; furthermore my father did not allow them at home, so they became a sort of secret fascination and the boys somehow managed to smuggle them in and swop them. The violence and hyperbole of the Old Testament stories found an echo in Desperate Dan and Dennis the Menace. They also gave me my palate.

There is a huge energy in the artwork for this book. Is this taken from the text or from your own passion?

JP: You should have seen it before it got bowdlerised by the powers that be!

Did you feel any sense of inhibition in illustrating stories taken from The Bible?

JP: I don't think so. When I was a young child during the war I only had access to my parents' children's books and my favourite was Kingsley's Heroes (in translation). The violence and exuberance of the Greek stories made the Bible look positively tame.

DW: I think the stories still read amazingly well which is a tribute to the original not to my editing.

Did you do any research before starting this book?

JP: It was my familiarity with the stories built up over my life that meant I didn't need to do any specific research. I am particularly grateful to Martin Jarvis' golden voice reading the Old Testament stories over and over again at my bedtime.

DW: I had a glance at modern retellings and was put right off the idea of trying to do this. The KJ English has the quality of being extraordinarily concise and pithy. Any attempt to retell in modern English will inevitably be longer which is exactly what Jan did not want.

How do you find the balance between the visual text and the written word?

JP: It's a bit of a tug of war with David. I find that the English culture still considers words to be the most important means of communication. I was once quoted as saying 'A picture is worth 500 words" - I actually said "A picture is worth 1,000 words". This says it all!

DW: It had to be Jan's decision how much text to accommodate or allow. For me that was part of the challenge and excitement. Since the pictures partly or wholly on occasion, tell the story, I had to remind myself all the time that I did not have to tell the whole story in words.

What advice would you give an aspiring writer or illustrator?

DW: If you are a writer , find a good illustrator and vice versa. These days artists very often try to do the text themselves – in order not to share the royalties? - but few (and perhaps Jan is an exception) succeed. It is the same with potters: a wonderful thrower will try to do their own decoration and perhaps he would have done better to give the pot to a good artist. Picasso didn't throw his pots!

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