Roger Mello, Brazilian Illustrator and Winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award!

*click each image to view full size

At long last, I have the pleasure of introducing–or perhaps re-affirming your existing knowledge of–the brilliant, creative, and immensely talented Roger Mello.  The Brasília native and socially-conscious illustrator has made history by becoming the first artist from Latin America to win the highly-coveted Hans Christian Andersen Award,  conferred biennially by the International Board on Books for Young People. Known as the Nobel prize of children’s literature, the Andersen Award ensures long-term recognition of an artist’s work, and grants a degree of legitimacy that–in a still-overlooked field–can significantly improve an author or illustrator’s career prospects.

Roger Mello dossier

First, the dossier: an intricately feathered monkey with a bright, inquisitive face on a plum background. This gorgeous and elaborate box arrived alongside a host of plain paper dossiers, and, as you can probably guess, stood out a mile. This is Mello’s own illustration, and as soon as I saw the box I couldn’t wait to peruse his books. I was not disappointed. They are unapologetically colorful, almost Carnaval-like, and filled with all sorts of wonderful people, creatures, and places. Even the covers are works of art in their own right.

Meninos do mangue ("Mangrove Children" and Zubair e os Labrintos ("Zubair and the Labyrinths")
Meninos do mangue (“Mangrove Children”) and Zubair e os Labrintos (“Zubair and the Labyrinths”)

When I was very little and growing up in Alabama, my Mom would sometimes take me to the Montgomery Museum of Fine Arts. I remember it had a fabulous and dynamic children’s section full of exciting things to discover. For some reason, these covers remind me specifically of that Museum. I suspect it has something to do with the fact that they are so bright, diverse,  and engaging, almost collage-like, an invitation to explore.

But I’m getting ahead of myself. Who, exactly, is this Roger Mello fellow?

Mello is 48–relatively young for an Andersen award winner–and has published over 100 titles throughout the course of his career, including poetry, short stories, screenplays, and, of course, books for children. [1] Born in 1965, Mello was raised in Brasília, and is, in his own words, a child of the authoritarian military dictatorship that controlled Brazil from 1964-1985. [1] Despite the toxic political environment in which he was raised, Mello’s imagination escaped unscathed–or, as Mac Margolis has suggested, perhaps it was precisely that oppression that spurred Mello to create.

Mello’s books, it should be noted, aren’t supposed to have all the answers; rather, Mello expects his readers to utilize their imaginations to fill in the gaps. Samantha Christensen has remarked that Mello “avoids heavy didactic or moralizing overtones, and instead encourages his readers to draw their own conclusion[s] based on the images and narrative at hand.” [2]

Mello’s upbringing during the dictatorship helps to explain the strong thread of social criticism running throughout his books, and especially in Carvoeirinhos (“Young Charcoal Burners”), which exposes the evils of child labor.

Carveoirinhos ("Young Charcoal Burners")
Carveoirinhos (“Young Charcoal Burners”)

According to a review of the book written by Sérgio Maggio, “Young Charcoal Burners” is an indictment of “the relentless economic system…that ends up pouring money into the pockets of the millionaire steel owners,” while endangering the children who must perpetually feed the fires. [3] Indeed, “Young Charcoal Burners” stands out among Mello’s books, which are usually lavishly illustrated in jewel tones. Instead, “Young Charcoal Burners” is all in gray–like charcoal–while the fires, symbols of heat and oppression, burst relentlessly from the pages in orange, pink, and red.

From "Young Charcoal Burners"
From “Young Charcoal Burners”

The plight of the children used to prop up an enormously profitable industry could not be expressed any more clearly in the above mixed-media illustration. The boy, cast all in somber, gray tones, literally seems to be transferring his vitality unto the voracious fire.

So, too, is Meninos do mangue (“Mangrove Children”) about child labor. Meninos tells the story of the children who live in the mangrove forests. These children have to pay extremely close attention to the tides so that they can harvest the crabs that flow in on the waves. “The book is set in an unusual place which is home to a bunch of kids who are often ignored by society,” says Mello, and was inspired by Geography of Hunger by sociologist Josue de Castro. [4] The title page of the book–also in gray–depicts members of the mangrove community in various stages of trapping, transporting, and preparing crabs.

Meninos do mangue, title page
Meninos do mangue, title page

João por um fio (“John by a Hair’ s Breadth”) is slightly more lighthearted. The bright red cover, with a small monkey-like man swinging from one intricate geometric swirl to another, hints at the entertaining story inside.

João por um fio
João por um fio (“John by a Hair’s Breadth”)

It’s always a pleasure to see line drawings done so well. The undying popularity of lush illustrations in children’s literature sometimes gets overwhelming, and I appreciate when illustrators are willing to branch out by exploring more abstract modes.

“John by a Hair’s Breadth” tells the story of John, the son of a fisherman, who has elaborate dreams every night. Mello illustrates these dreams and flights of fancy with intricate nets, webs, and matrices, which were in turn inspired by  classic Brazilian embroidery. [5]

Joao por um fio, image

So, too, is Zubair e os Labrintos (“Zubair and the Labyrinths”) a tale of mazes. Set against a bright orange backdrop, the perpetually running Zubair must navigate his way through difficult after increasingly difficult maze.

Zubair e os labrintos
Zubair e os labrintos

Interestingly, as Tino Freitas writes, “[Zubair] tells of the historic sack of the Bagdad Museum during the war. Pieces of incalculable value, such as vases from Mesopotamia, Assyrian ivory carvings, ceramics from the royal cemetery of the city of Ur were left at the mercy of vandals and opportunists. Young Zubair runs through the rubble.” [6] Based on a series of actual events that transpired in 2003, when hundreds, if not thousands, of artifacts were looted before the eyes of U.S. and British troops, Zubair e os Labrintos illustrates how one particular artifact–a carpet–can lead someone back through the layers of time to ancient Mesopotamia. An intriguing, and unusual, war narrative to say the least.

By now, it should be obvious (I hope!) why Roger Mello is such a decorated illustrator, with countless awards to his name. Yet despite his homeland fame and ever-growing international status, none of Mello’s books have ever been published in the United States. [1] In fact, they are not even readily available. Only seven of his books have been translated: one into German, two into French, three into Chinese, and two into Spanish. It is well known that children’s books are much more likely to be translated from English into other languages, as opposed to the other way around. But it is nothing short of tragic when books from Brazil’s now most-famous illustrator have been prevented from entering the English-speaking world by publishers concerned about marketing and sales with little respect for or awareness of international titles.

Luckily, my favorite book of Mello’s happens to have no words, meaning its cleverness and shifting perspectives can be understood by all. It begins with a naughty tiger…

Selvagem ("Savage")
Selvagem (“Savage”)

Wordless picturebooks are typically delightful, and Selvagem (“Savage”) is no disappointment. The story takes place within a single room where an arrogant hunter admires his reflection in the mirror. A framed photo of a tiger, meanwhile, is the only source of color and liveliness in an otherwise gray room.

Selvagem, image

Eventually, the tiger grows bored with his predicament and decides to elevate his 2-dimensional existence. I won’t ruin the surprise, but suffice it to say that the tiger gets his revenge on the hunter, and then some!

I hope you’ve enjoyed this review of Roger Mello’s incredible work. I don’t believe he has a website, but if you’re curious about Mello, I did find this interview (which I believe was conducted in Italian) that took place at the Book Fair in Bologna shortly after Mello was announced as the winner of the 2014 HCA Award. I can’t understand a word, but at least you get a sense of how cheerful he seems in real life!

A huge congratulations to Roger Mello and all of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award nominees! This post completes my mini-series on illustrators nominated for the 2014 awards. I certainly hope you have enjoyed it! And do not worry; I have several more ideas regarding children’s literature in the works.

Here is the full list of all the illustrators I featured:

Alenka Sottler, Slovenia

Svjetlan Junaković, Croatia

Byong-Ho Han, South Korea

Reinis Pētersons, Latvia

Albertine, Switzerland 

Xiong Liang, China

Carll Cneut, Belgium 

Javier Zabala, Spain

Igor Oleynikov, Russia

Fabian Negrin, Italy

——-

Sources:

[1] Mac Margolis. “Illustrator Becomes First Latin American to Win Highest Children’s Lit Honor.” Vocativ.com. Persistent URL.

[2] Samantha Christensen. “Roger Mello: Brazil, Illustrator.” Bookbird Vol. 52, No. 2, 2014; p. 11. Persistent URL.

[3] Sérgio Maggio. “Brasiliense Roger Mello denuncia poeticamente os males do trabalho infantil em Carvoeirinhos” (Engl. “Brasiliense Roger Mello poetically denounces the evils of child labor in Carvoeirinhos”). Correio Braziliense. Persistent URL

[4] Alethea Muniz. “Brasiliense illustrator and author Roger Mello is a finalist in two categories of the Jabuti Award with his hook Meninos do mangue, in which he opens up the universe of the communities who live in the countries’ urban mangrove swamps.” Correio Braziliense. Not available online.

[5] Daniel Almeida. “For the little ones – Delicate Plot.” TAM Magazine , N° 27, May 2006. Not available online.

[6] Tino Freitas. “Breaking through shadows, discovering labyrinths…”  Bookworms, October 18, 2007, bookmarks: roedores de livros – Dicas de Livros. Not available online.

[7] Dossier on Roger Mello prepared by the Brazilian Section of IBBY — the Fundação Nacional do Livro Infantil e Juvenil (FNLIJ) — for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen jury. Not available online.

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29 thoughts on “Roger Mello, Brazilian Illustrator and Winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award!

  1. […] alabama nice,” and “shit people from birmingham say.” My second most-viewed post, Roger Mello: Brazilian Illustrator and Winner of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award, is probably more worth reading, especially since it had the distinction of being cited in an […]

  2. By the way, we still have a few books by Roger Mello for sale here at Bookends & Beginnings. A friend came in yesterday and actually apologized for buying two of them–since she knows that I am a fan and will surely suffer from the loss. I explained, though, that I am a bookseller now and not a librarian, and I have to get used to my flock being dispersed in all the winds.

      1. This is in response to Suzan Zabeti’s question re which Roger Mello books we still have. Actually, we just got some more in! So we currently have:
        Carvoeirinhos $18
        Zubair e os labirintos $16
        Nau catarineta $12
        Meninos do mangue $14
        Maria Teresa $10
        We also just received a Korean edition of João por um fio, for which Roger Mello also did the Korean calligraphy himself! $20.

  3. Excellent post. I am savouring your reviews of illustrators , rather than binge reading the whole lot at once. 🙂
    That will give you time to write some. 😀

  4. I think it’s really neat that you get to be part of a process of choosing the best illustrators from abroad. Curious, could you hazard a guess as to why Mello is being censored from English translations?

    1. Oh, I wasn’t part of the official process (it’s very difficult to get a seat on the Hans Christian Andersen Award jury!), I merely picked a few of my favorite illustrators from the nominees list and featured them here on my blog 🙂 I don’t think Mello is being “censored” from English translations, it’s just that it’s extremely difficult for foreign authors and illustrators to break into the U.S. market. Translations cost money, and publishers want to make sure they will earn the money back. (Not that that is an entirely legitimate excuse!) Thanks for commenting 🙂

  5. Those are some really interesting pictures, although I have to say that I like children’s book illustrations that are a little more childlike. This isn’t my favorite of some of the ones you’re posted. But they are beautiful.

    1. I do know what you mean, but I wonder where your preference for more childlike illustrations comes from. Any idea? (And I suppose this is why you were such a big fan of Albertine’s work—I think that post was my most popular in the WordPress community, so it makes sense! 🙂

      1. Americans are known internationally for their preference for realistic illustration in children’s books. In many other countries, children are asked to just emote to colors and shapes and moods. What looks and feels warm? friendly? funny? There is a greater tolerance for non-representational, non-mimetic art for children in other countries, I believe.

    1. Haha yes, my boyfriend made fun of me for using that phrase, but I thought it was funny so I kept it in. Glad someone found it amusing 🙂 Yes, his books look like illustrated versions of Brazil! I love it when artists use lots of color, and I love “geometric” drawings, so when the two are combined it makes me especially happy.

    1. I know, it’s such a shame! I have a friend who works at a public library in New York and it greatly disappoints her that none of Roger Mello’s work is available here. Something like only 3% of the children’s books in the U.S. come from outside the country.

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