Internationally renowned illustrator duo Aleksandra Mizielinska and Daniel Mizielinski are back at it again with the tremendous Under Water, Under Earth, which just released and is in stores today. The Polish couple are founders of their creative incubator Hipopotam Studio and are the masterminds behind children’s books Welcome to Mamoko and Maps. Their immersive art, always teeming with color and information, is captivating for kids and parents alike--making them a favorite here at Illustoria.
In Under Water, Under Earth the Mizielińskis continue the encyclopedic theme of their past work Maps with a visually explosive double-sided book that explores the worlds that exist beneath the surface. Readers traverse their journey by starting from the surface and making their way down, beginning with earthworms and ending with the Mariana Trench, the lowest point of the ocean. The book’s organization is playfully idiosyncratic, hopping from root vegetables to subway train stations to tectonic plates.
Flip the pages and you’ll see each topic is stuffed to the brim with astonishing factoids, wildly vibrant illustrations and imaginative diagrams. The Mizielińskis offer an otherwise impossible look into the coolest things out there, like a train tunnel being gorged out of a mountain or boreholes that go 7.5 miles beneath earth’s surface. What’s even more astonishing is its breadth--the Mizielińskis seamlessly bring together ecosystems, technological processes, natural phenomena, physics and history. It’s easy to get lost in the artists' distinctive cartoon style, which is highly detailed and, given a second look, secretly mischievous.
You and your ever-curious youngin’ will want to devote an entire afternoon digging into this masterpiece. And don’t be mistaken, this isn’t a cool fact book your kid will read once and then tuck away forever in the closet. Rather, this enormous atlas is one they’ll want to return to again and again, each time to learn a new, mind-boggling fact. We were fortunate enough to get an interview with Daniel Mizielinski, thanks to Phoebe and Jean at Candlewick Press...so read on!
Q & A with Daniel Mizielinski
Can you talk about the research process for your books?
We follow information on internet sources, and check them with real people working in the field. After that, there are usually two or three or four specialized editors—we have a biologist, someone from construction, and so on, reading pages with images and text and they’re finding mistakes that we correct.
How do you find these experts?
They may be editors for other publishing houses, or in one of our books we had a physicist from CERN who’d done a book about space exploration and physics. Every person is just six Facebook or Twitter friends away, it’s really true. Whenever I can’t find someone, I just throw a question at my Academy of Fine Arts net of students, and within a day I have answers.
Please describe your roles in working together on your books.
In every book we have both text and images created by me and Ola. It’s hard for me to define how exactly we do that because it’s so seamless we don’t really think about it. We met at the first year of college and we learned how to design and created our first commercial, [bad] projects together and learned from our mistakes. We just know each other so well.
What is your drawing process? What mediums do you use?
Everything you see is drawn on paper and then usually colors are created in computer. And of course all the layouts are done on computer. But we always start on paper. We design both video games and books, and even with games we do sketches by hand. Usually a lot of assets are drawn by hand.
I think this is because the education process in the arts schools in Poland is different than in the US. In the US you have this very narrow specialization, and in Poland you go through everything, from the very traditional 16th-century graphics—I had two years of making fresco and other ancient techniques—through design, type design. On the side we are both programmers. There’s a lot of diversity. It’s good because you can always change what you do. If you have a low budget [for a commercial project], you don’t have to hire an illustrator.
Do you think that’s why there’s such creativity today in Polish children’s books?
There’s always been that creativity. The problem was that in the 90s, after Poland regained its independence and the capitalism came in, all those great old publishers didn’t know how to work in the new reality. Before the ’80s or the ’90s, all the books in Poland were published in runs of hundreds of thousands…. The ’90s were a period when people were adjusting to a new reality. We had a lot of great products, but we had a lot of cheap products. After [the collapse of the big publishing houses], small publishing houses started to pop up, created by two or three people, like our publishing house, Dwie Siostry. When we came to them, it was 2007, we’d just graduated from college, and they had like two books. We started working with them when they had this moment where they knew what they were doing but they still hadn’t sold a lot of rights to their own books.
Here, because Poland is so much smaller than the US, the only way to make a living making books for children is to sell foreign rights. So Dwie Siorstry were the first ones to do this huge leap. This is the main reason we could abandon making any commercial projects and just do books and games, and they can have this greater reach and publish good books that are also not expensive in Poland…It’s very important here to keep the low price, because you don’t want to create exclusive books that are printed in low runs that designers want to put on their bookshelves. You want to create books for kids that are not only in the center of Warsaw but also in low-income areas. Those books are designed to be really for kids. Not just a trophy for us as graphic designers to create these achievements. We are lucky to have this publisher. It’s great to see your book in a library in a school where maybe students don’t have as many opportunities.
It sounds as though you’re driven to make sure that your books reach kids.
I hear from a lot of writers, not just designers but writers, that writing a book for children is something like a lesser task for a writer, right, it’s better to write some nonfiction for adults, you know what I mean? In Poland, when you look at illustrators and graphic designers, it was never like that. All the great designers, the famous Polish designers, they all did books for children; in the academies, in the art schools, books for children were always one of the most interesting topics.
Throughout my childhood, all of those books were designed really, really well. I was lucky enough to be taught by some of the teachers who created some of those books, because they’re still alive—because I’m not that old—and it was a great experience. I don’t know if it shaped this consciousness that you need to design for kids or something like that, but I think it’s shaped this idea that a book can be a really great experience.
Every one of our books is written using those two languages: one is words, one is images. We treat the visual language on the same level as written language, and we try to be careful that those two are not mirroring each other. The worst thing in my opinion an illustrator can do is when there’s a text says, “Mary’s going through a forest,” and you’re just drawing a regular Mary who is walking through a regular forest, and maybe there’s a blob of green for the trees. The best thing you can do is interpret a text and add things that are not in the text. We always try to do that, because it works great in educational books to write that way. If you can convey something much quicker using images, then why use a text?
How have your own children, twins who will be two in January, shaped your work? Do they like your books?
Thankfully, all of our books that we show them are working as designed. As I said before, we want the books to go directly to children, not to designers, that’s true—but while we’re making a book, we don’t think about those children. It’s funny but we make as good a book as possible [for ourselves], back when we were children or now. We were lucky enough that our idea of a good book is similar to a kids’ idea of a good book.
We always treat children as adults who just have less knowledge. In the Polish language, there is this tendency, I don’t know if I know the correct term in English, [diminutives]— there is a “cat”, and there is a “kitty.” In Poland, you can say stół, a table, you can say stolik, like a small table, and you can say everything in this manner. A lot of the people who write for children are using this super-childish and stupid language. A lot of people who talk to their children also use this language—you know, because they’re children. In Polish, it’s very easy to do that. [Aleksandra and I] never use it. It’s called zdrobnienie—making something smaller. We never do that. We never do that. We never do this, in the language layer of our books or in the layer of knowledge.
If we're writing about radiation for kids, we say, ‘OK, the kid who is reading this book is about 9 years old. What else about radiation can I explain or omit? Will they ignore it or skip ahead?’ This is the only consideration. It’s not: ‘Can I tell them about radiation, it’s a hard topic?’ Yes I can. Only maybe you have to fill some knowledge gaps for them. But this is true for every human being. So you can write about anything you want.
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