From the Design Desk: Vintage Children’s Books from Poland

Recently in the office, editor Jason Sacher shared an inspiring link to Książki Books, a blog devoted to vintage Polish children’s books and their amazing illustrations.

Coincidentally, my friend Karolina Walichiewicz had just told me about all these children’s books from her childhood that her parents brought over from Poland, which are now gathering dust in boxes at her house. So we invited her to give them some air and share some of her favorites with us. We found tons of inspiration in these precious vintage foreign books.

Karolina helped translate some of the stories and recount her most memorable books from childhood. The language barrier didn’t keep us from appreciating the overwhelming amount of beautiful, pristine illustrations that adorned every book. The color-saturated pages along with the old book smell triggered that nostalgia we all have for reading as a child. The care and craft put into older illustrations, many using only 1 or 2 colors but maximizing results and impact, gave us plenty to ogle over.

And of course there were many examples of full color illustrations that sent us overboard with their attention to detail, the range of styles from book to book, and the warmth that can only come from yellowing with age.

One in particular was a favorite of all the designers and editors, a small charming book about a locomotive and all that it passes along its journey. The illustrated typography was especially inspiring.

We also noticed that many of the books had illustrations that could speak to adults as well as children, often representing darker stories and not shying away from the ugliness of evil or bizarre characters. This makes sense knowing that many older stories, like the classic fairytales of Hans Christian Andersen or the Brothers Grimm, were much more violent and scary than the Disneyfied versions we know today. It was refreshing to see similar tales represented in their uncensored, original forms through grotesque yet gripping illustration styles, and be reminded that not all children’s books have to be cute and fuzzy to be good.

After seeing the quality and variety in just this small, personalized collection of vintage books from Poland, it really put in perspective how much else is out there that has been produced by all the countries in the world, and how many amazing books from the past there must be hidden away in closets, waiting to be rediscovered and treasured all over again. Let’s just hope someone will find and share them before they disappear forever!

Eloise Leigh

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  • Sally Spratt June 27, 2011 at 4:02 pm

    Love them! Too bad I can't read Polish! The illustrations are wonderful.


  • lynneGB June 27, 2011 at 4:51 pm

    Wonderful post. I just read it to my 16 month old son as he ate 'bupa" or blueberries and head nodded to the Grateful Dead. Mondays are library day, so this post was quite fitting; thank you!


  • Cate June 27, 2011 at 11:11 pm

    Love seeing these books. Thanks for sharing them with the public!!! Charming books for children are all over the world. It would be a wonderful thing if there were a way to access books from all over the world in one place (online?) so we are sure of not losing them in years to come.


  • kalina June 28, 2011 at 1:29 pm

    Here is a link to a decent English translation of Tuwim's "Lokomotywa":


  • Cayetanca June 28, 2011 at 1:35 pm

    Very nice! I'm proud of being Polish:) Remember some of them from my childhood and still have some others home:)


  • Agnieszka June 28, 2011 at 2:32 pm

    Thank you for posting these. They bring wonderful memories. I have quite a few of these for my child. I would love to see them translated to English.


  • Leslie June 30, 2011 at 4:22 am

    Very cool! My husband is Russian so we have found a few old Russian children's books to add to our 19 month old son's library. I'd love to find more if anyone has any stashed away!


  • Ivona August 29, 2011 at 9:49 am

    I got the first few lines of Lokomotywa stuck in my head the other day, despite not having heard it in at least 40 years, and was glad that I could find it online, and was intrigued to see that a few stabs had been taken at translation, which sounded as though it could be a fun project. I purpously didn't read them right away to avoid being influenced by one or another, and I think I have come up with something that, though it's maybe not quite professional, manages to maintain the meter and the feeling while staying as true to the original words as I could manage… I'd love to hear any comments!

    Guess I will have to split up the post, as it's too long. We'll see whether I can get the whole poem in the next.


  • Ivona August 29, 2011 at 9:56 am

    The locomotive stands at the station
    Heavy, enormous, she drips perspiration –
    Fat lubrication

    Standing and panting, gasping and blowing,
    Heat from her fiery belly glowing,
    Huff – How it scorches!
    Puff – How it scorches!
    Chuff – How it scorches!
    Uff – How it scorches!


  • Ivona August 29, 2011 at 9:57 am

    She barely gasps, and she barely wheezes
    And still the stoker the coal shovel seizes.
    Wagons are fixed to her, wheel behind wheel,
    Massive and heavy, of iron and steel.
    Many hold families; father and mother
    One might hold horses, and cows fill another.
    A third's full of nothing but corpulent fatties
    Sitting and eating fried hamburger patties.
    The fourth of the wagons is filled with bananas,
    And there in the fifth stand six grand pianos.
    The sixth holds a cannon. How mighty it seems!
    Every wheel braced tightly with strong iron beams!
    In the seventh, oak wardrobes and tables and chairs,
    In the eighth, a huge elephant, camels and bears!
    In the ninth, fattened hogs are the resident guests,
    In the tenth, piles of trunks, cases, boxes and chests.

    But though you could summon up one thousand athletes,
    And though you could feed them each one thousand cutlets,
    And even if each strained for all he was worth,
    They never could lift it an inch from the earth!


  • Ivona August 29, 2011 at 9:59 am

    Then, a shrill
    Whistle's trill!
    Belch of steam!
    Grinding scream!

    As slow
    As a sloth
    In molasses
    By inches
    She passes.

    She jerks at the wagons and pulls them with zeal
    Rolling on, rolling on, wheel after wheel,
    And she picks up the pace, chugging ever more quickly,
    She rumbles and echoes and clatters so slickly.


  • Ivona August 29, 2011 at 9:59 am

    But where? And to where? And to where? To the fore!
    On the tracks, on the tracks, o'er the trestle and more!
    Through the hills, through the tunnel, past meadows and trees,
    And hurrying, hurrying, swift as you please.
    In rhythm she clatters, the rocking percussion, like
    Clickety, clickety, clickety clacking, like
    Smoothly, like lightly, like airily feel,
    Like a light little ball, not a beast made of steel.
    Not massive machinery burning within,
    But a trifle, a plaything, a toy made of tin.

    But wherefore, and why, and, oh, how does she rush?
    And what, and, oh, what, and who pushes her thus?
    That she speeds and she throws herself huffing, puff-puff?
    It's the fire turning water to steam that's enough!
    The steam through the pipes sets the pistons a-pumping,
    The pistons set rods on each side roundly thumping,
    And driving and pushing, propelling the train,
    The steam drives the pistons again and again,
    So the wheels keep on rolling and rocking percussion, like,
    Clickety, clackety, clickety, clackety….


  • Poster Printing September 14, 2011 at 12:04 pm

    These are gorgeous pieces! Many of these would still make perfect poster projects, even today. You’re right on with your observation concerning the Pani Twardowska piece speaking to much darker, adult themes.


  • Jil Casey October 10, 2011 at 6:11 pm

    Wow – great books! I particularly like the illustration of animals in 8th pic.


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