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Trains, Tweets and a Turnip: the making of a children's classic

Posted on 25 Aug 2017

On the eve of World War Two, a Polish publisher took the unusual step of commissioning an advertising duo to illustrate some children’s verse. The result was a landmark in the history of picture books.

The illustrators created art that was as delightful for the parents as the children.

Everyone remembers the picture books they grew up with. Partly, of course, it’s to do with how young minds react to colourful images. But the best children’s books do more than just excite. They’re able to get right into your head. The Gruffalo does that for today’s children. The Cat in the Hat did the same for their parents. At the end of the 1930s few children’s books had quite as much X-factor as a small Polish volume known, in England, as The Locomotive.

First published in Poland in 1938, Lokomotywa consisted of three poems by Julian Tuwim: The Locomotive, The Turnip and The Bird’s Broadcast. The first describes a steam train that ‘pants and blows’ out of the station carrying elephants, giraffes and three sausage-eating men. The Turnip involves an outsized vegetable, and the last is a story about birds who can’t shut up. Tuwim’s words are so musical, they’re often described as sound poetry. Even in translation, when you hear the steam engine “gobble up coal with a ravenous roar” you can practically feel the heat.

The artwork came from the Warsaw-based graphic design team of Jan LeWitt and George Him. It was the synergy between their drawings and Tuwim’s rhymes that set this book apart. LeWitt-Him were an innovative pair of artists, who had a reputation for incorporating their love of Modernist technique into poster adverts. If that sounds a little cold, their drawings were anything but: the colours used in The Locomotive are a sensuous mix of chalky pastels and bright reds, and Tuwim’s characters are drawn with such warmth you can’t help but smile.

The innovative way the pages are laid out adds to the effect. The train travels over bridges and valleys, for instance, right across a double-page spread. And when the train goes “Chuff, Uff, Puff, Uff” the words go right down the page. By comparison, other popular picture books of the time, like Babar the Elephant, seem rather unsophisticated. Even now The Locomotive looks remarkably fresh and modern.

Lewitt-Him's bold colours, and unusual typography were an inspiration for future illustrators.

The book was Lewitt-Him’s first big success. If they had stayed in Poland during the war, it might have been their last. But they were lucky to find themselves working in London on the brink of World War Two and wise enough to stay there. During the war they helped the Ministry of Information producing posters, including the famous Vegetabull designed to discourage the overuse of precious meat.

After the war, LeWitt and Him continued to work and live in England. They produced the famous Guinness clock for the Festival of Britain and were involved in various advertising campaigns until they dissolved their partnership in 1955. Jan LeWitt became a painter while George Him carried on in advertising, producing some notable work for Schweppes. He also illustrated a number of other children’s book including Ann and Ben and Little Nippers.

‘Julian Tuwim struggled to produce work in communist Poland and died in 1953. Lokomotywa became a Polish elementary school staple and many children were encouraged to learn it by heart. Unfortunately, the versions used often came with different illustrations. Eighty years on nothing can touch the original.

Russ Coffey