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.