Monday, August 13, 2012

Czech-Illustrated Children's Folklore and Mythology Books, English-Language Editions

From the annals of obscure scholarship...

I mentioned in a previous post that I am fascinated by Czech illustration (of children's books) and since I just recently found another lovely example of this genre, I thought it was finally time to share the Google Docs spreadsheet I've been compiling for a while now that lists titles, authors, illustrators and subject matter in this area. (And don't think I didn't slave over those Czech diacritical marks!) Behold and rejoice, Internets:

GOOGLE DOCS SPREADSHEET: Czech-Illustrated Children's Folklore and Mythology Books, English-Language Editions

Just for background, during the Cold War, British and American publishers discovered that they could produce and print high-quality translations of fairy-tale books (et al) in what was then Czechoslovakia for much less than they would pay if they used homegrown authors and illustrators.

Paul Hamlyn was apparently the pioneer in this field, and I think many of the imprints of these books are either his or his corporate descendants. His big discovery was Jiří Trnka, who is often described as the "Walt Disney of the East," although I think that gives his importance--not to mention his completely unique style--short shrift.

Beginning with a multi-volume run starring Trnka, the business of cheap Czech imports seemed to take off in the late 1950s. As far as I can tell, it carried on briskly throughout the 1960s and 1970s, until it apparently petered out in the early 1980s. (Although it's possible I just haven't found the relevant post-1982 works.) (FWIW, I suspect that economic conditions on both ends of the bargain changed sufficiently to just kill the business model.)

Anyway, as a treat for reading this far into a blog post on Czech-illustrated children's books what the hell, here are some scans for you art junkies to enjoy:

"The Owl King" by Karel Franta, from The Book of Goodnight Stories

"Kŕesomysl and Horymír" by Jiří Trnka, from Legends of Old Bohemia by Alois Jirásek

"Seigfried and Beautiful Kriemhild" by Vojtěch Kubašta, from Folk Tales and Legends
Have any further knowledge or insight on these artists? Please share it in the comments!


  1. I'm intrigued - thank you so much for sharing this! I love the Owl King illustration you included and really want to check out some of these titles though the history is as interesting as the art, really.

  2. From one fan of Czech illustration to another, can I just say you are a star for making that spreadsheet!

  3. HAHA, I can't believe there's more than one of us!

  4. This is an awesome collection. But I have another reason to connect with you, to ask for help.
    About 10 years ago, I saw a version of the Mahabharata (the Indian epic) illustrated by a Czech artist, whose name I do not remember. I had looked him up and had found that he was retired (in his seventies or eighties) and in the many years since he had illustrated this book, he had become a really big shot in Czech official-dom. At that time I had thought that I could use some of his illustrations in a book I was writing, and I sent email to the Academy of Arts (I think) in Prague but got no reply.
    My project was stalled, but it looks like I will be able to publish this year. I would still like to use his pictures and want to connect with whoever is managing his copyrights.
    Unfortunately, I don't have the book and don't recall his name. The Mahabharata does not show up in your spreadsheet. Can you help?

  5. Kamesh, I have no idea, I wish I did. I'll keep an eye out for it for sure, and ping you if I run across anything. My only suggestion is that a major publisher to research further is Artia, which I think published many of the books we're discussing. Good luck.

  6. Thanks for the pointer to Artia.

  7. A small part of the ancient Indian epic Mahabharata tells story of the most perfect of all men - king Nalov, who was stripped of his kingdom and his beloved princess Damajantí : "O králi Nalovi a princezně Damajantí" with 66 double page illustrations by Vaclav Fiala, published in 1957???