In the second in her Stories from the Archives, Sarah Lawrance reveals a campaigning side to Jan Pieńkowski.
On his ‘Puffin Passport’ (c.1980) Jan Pieńkowski declared a special phobia for frogs, a preference for the colour red, the smell of hay and the sound of leaves in the wind; his preferred song was Danny Boy and poem ‘If’; he said that if he couldn’t write (or, presumably, draw) he would like to sing, and that if he ‘suddenly had £1,000’ he would ‘fly to Rio with a (very!) few friends and have a picnic on the beach’. In his passport photo he is pictured cheek-to-cheek with a fine-looking horse, smiling.
In those far distant days before YouTube and TikTok, the Puffin Passport was a clever way of creating connections between Puffin authors and their readers; the Puffin Club, launched by Kaye Webb in 1967, is still fondly remembered by former members for its quarterly magazines, quirky merchandise and joyous annual exhibitions thronged with children eager for a chance to meet their favourite Puffin authors and illustrators in person.
By the time he was issued with his passport, Jan was already a Puffin veteran, with thirteen Puffin titles to his name. From 1978-1980 he had been responsible for design of The Egg, the magazine of the Junior Puffin Club (for 4-7 year-olds), edited by Meg and Mog author Helen Nicoll; a decade later, when Puffin turned 50, Jan was enlisted to help with the celebrations, designing an exhibition set in the shape of a giant walk-through birthday cake.
The Puffin treatment boosted the careers of many authors and illustrators in the middle decades of the twentieth century and helped to raise
the status of children’s publishing more widely. Yet in other respects achieving proper recognition and reward for illustrators, in particular, could be difficult. When Public Lending Right was introduced in 1979, illustrators were initially excluded from the scheme, which entitled authors to receive a payment when their books were borrowed from public libraries. Vigorous protests ensued and the scheme was duly amended; however, since titles with fewer than 48 pages were deemed ineligible, this was no help so far as picturebooks were concerned. In 1981, a further change was made to include books of 32 pages, but only if they carried half a page of printed text on each page; since this meant that the majority of books for young children remained ineligible, the fight for a fair deal for illustrators continued.
In the vanguard was the illustrator and tireless letter-writer Faith Jaques, whose archive at Seven Stories documents every twist and turn in the campaign. Faith successfully mobilised a host of authors and illustrators, and Jan was one of those who took up the cause: in October 1983 he had just succeeded in securing PLR on his Fairy Tale Library, but was deeply dissatisfied that his twenty or so shorter titles were ineligible. These would have included the Meg and Mog books, his Nursery Tales (with as few as 12 words per title), and his early pop-ups including the Kate Greenaway Award-winning Haunted House (1979) and Robot (1981). In a letter dated 11 October 1983 he told Faith, ‘I am just working [on] a very ambitious work of twenty-four pages, with an awful lot of work in it, and hoping that you can help us win this particular battle.’
The following month Jan wrote to Lord Gowrie, Minister for the Arts, summarising the position: ‘You may not be aware of the paradoxical plight of illustrators of picture books for very young children. The interests of their readers demand very short books, whereas in order to be eligible for PLR the authors should stretch the books to thirty-two pages or more.
I have twenty titles which are of less than thirty-two pages in extent, and some of them are parts of series which I intend to continue. Many of my colleagues are in a similar, or worse situation.
I hope you will agree that this restriction, when applied to people in my profession, is as unfair as it is arbitrary.’
Jan sent copies of his letters, together with the responses he received, to Faith, who filed them with the rest of her correspondence. Some of her own letters ran to several pages of densely handwritten and closely argued text, and while I admire her tenacity, I can’t help feeling that it must have been a relief for the Minister to hear from an illustrator who was able to express himself effectively with so few words.
At any rate, the campaign was effective, and by August 1984 Jan was able to write to Faith again:
‘Thank you very much for your note and the proposed PLR changes. Congratulations! All your hard work has been crowned with success, and now many of our fellow illustrators will reap the rewards.’
Sadly Faith Jaques’s work is little known today, but the Public Lending Right provision for illustrators, which she and Jan and so many others campaigned for, remains in place, now administered by the British Library with a good sprinkling of children’s books people involved in its administration to keep things right.
Sarah Lawrance was formerly the Collection and Exhibitions Director at Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books and is now a freelance curator.
All photos courtesy of Seven Stories, the National Centre for Children’s Books.