Kornel Makuszyński: Children’s author with a ‘preacherly’ quality

Kornel Makuszyński PAP/CAF

One of a handful of bestselling authors in the history of Polish literature, Kornel Makuszyński, first came to prominence with his 1928 masterpiece Those Two Who Stole The Moon.

The tale of two twins, who decide to steal the moon from the sky and sell it to the highest bidder, ends with their realisation of the fleeting nature of worldly fortune: the boys return to their native village keen to help their parents in the fields.

Such a moralistic ending is far from atypical for Makuszyński’s output: the preacherly quality of his works did much to recommend them to parents and teachers keen on reading to improve young minds. 

Yet his stories contained just enough anarchic craziness to win over young readers themselves, populated as they are with adventurous runaways or treasure seekers and detectives in their early teens. They may all end up safely at home with their loving parents but not before seeing much of the world, overcoming traps, setbacks and misfortunes and unlocking mysteries that confounded the adults around them.

In one of the first and most famous Polish comic books, his character of a goat became a cult classic. Koziołek Matołek first appeared in 1933 and tell the story of a clumsy goat called Matołek whose adventures are roughly comparable to characters such as Rupert Bear. 

Still, many readers today will find his novels pretty tame stuff and Makuszyński was certainly no Roald Dahl or Lemony Snicket - even compared to his contemporaries, such as Jan Brzechwa, he stood out for mild charm and correctness rather than wild flights of fancy. 

It is probably for this reason that his work has not aged quite as well as many other children’s classics though if he died in obscurity and almost deprivation, it had more to do with politics than changing tastes of the reading public.

Having made a fortune from his books, Makuszyński saw it literally go up in flames, as his Warsaw home and art collection were bombed by the Germans in 1939. 

Once the occupation was over, pre-war fame counted against him, the new Communist rulers insistent that he was poisoning young minds with bourgeois propaganda. Unable to publish, supported by his wife’s piano lessons, one of Poland’s greatest literary stars outlived Stalin by just a few months, not long enough to see the mid-1950s thaw that restored him to the heights of literary fame he had enjoyed in middle age.