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



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

Digital Designs: The Drawings of Alenka Sottler

*click each image to view full size

The winners of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award were announced yesterday, and I must say that I was very pleased with the results. Nahoko Uehashi of Japan won the writing award, while Roger Mello of Brazil took the medal for illustration. Incidentally, Mello was among my top favorites, and I saved his illustrations for last! So, look for those in the next week or so in an especially in-depth post.

But, because I got behind on my (very loose) schedule, I still have one additional illustrator to feature: the amazing Alenka Sottler, whose “drawings” (I have no idea how she makes them) are unlike any I have ever seen.

Tri Pesnitve ("Three Poems")
Tri Pesnitve (“Three Poems”)

It’s as though she wanted to transform impressionistic paintbrush dots into a digital format – her drawings are visibly pixelated, but that is precisely what makes them beautiful and unique. Consider the incredible detail and layered colors in the image from “Three Poems,” above. Sottler’s is a precise technique; even her softer drawings look slightly computerized. I don’t mean that in a bad way at all. Some people are of the opinion that so-called “natural” and “original” artistic techniques are inherently more valuable or truthful, that the apex of artistic production is paint and a paintbrush, or clay and a potter’s wheel. I’m not arguing that any artistic technique has any more inherent value than another, but it’s wonderful to see someone incorporate the pixelated aesthetic of the 21st century into their artwork in such a beautiful and creative way.

Sottler has said of her work:
“Essential for my creative process is the ability to use extreme simplification, which opens up surprising worlds and a space for creative play…I produce seemingly extremely complex visual forms in an astoundingly simple manner. In my drawings I behave like someone who partakes in nature’s processes. I find an interesting abstract structure. I grasp its visual essence and its hidden logic. I add to it with its own laws of growth.”

Cesar in roza, image 1
from Cesar in roža (“The Emperor and the Rose”)

Here’s an example of one of those quintessentially digital drawings. Have you ever seen such a striated rose before? Or, for that matter, a rose that blends so well with a cell phone? Sottler’s work vaguely reminds me of Andy Warhol’s; there’s a pop art element to it, a brashness of form and color.

Sottler herself stumbled across this post, and was amused by the attempts Shelley and I made to figure out how, and why, she had composed her illustrations in the way that she did. The comment she left was fascinating:

The Emperor and the Rose…is a book of modern fairy tales through a woman’s perspective and narrated by using old-fashioned language. It tells about the court and love troubles of princesses and kings. The troubles among kings and princesses are quite reminiscent of themes from contemporary medical novels. This is the reason why I set the illustrations into contemporary consumerist society and imitated the digital images from selling catalogues. At the same time, I wanted to express the woman’s inner world and her married life by alluding to the old-fashioned technique of knitting and homemade fabric textiles typical of households of married couples. Consequently, I made illustrations on cotton cloth with tartan pattern used in the sixties by Slovenian housewives for making bed linens. This cloth pattern is very similar to knitting. In addition, digital images of our time are ‘cubic’ as well. There is, of course, a certain degree of parody and humour in this…

You can read the rest of the conversation in the comments section below — and perhaps get a little starstruck, like I was! Suffice it to say that Sottler’s technique and nuanced sociohistorical perspective make her unique in the world of children’s literature.

Sottler’s work is all the more intriguing because her illustrations have an undeniably dark undercurrent. Here is Sottler’s take on the classic fairy tale “Cinderella”:

Pepelka, cover

The original “Cinderella” isn’t an entirely happy story, and Sottler’s illustrations are much more genuine than Disney’s watercolor-Barbie version. Here, Cinderella looks wooden, with downcast eyes; her dependence on birds and other animals for companionship, emphasized. This somber tone pervades Sottler’s illustrations in the anthology “Folk Tales from Around the World.”

Svetovne Pravljice ("Folk Tales from Around the World")
Svetovne Pravljice (“Folk Tales from Around the World”)

This book probably weighs 3 pounds – you can see that I had trouble getting it to lay flat so that I could scan it properly. But I was determined to do so, mostly because of the following image…

from "Folk Tales from Around the World"
from “Folk Tales from Around the World”

Presumably this is a particularly horrifying recounting of “The Little Red Riding Hood,” though I don’t remember the girl in that tale ever stumbling upon a seance in the woods. I wish I had specifics, but the text was all in Slovenian, and unfortunately not a single one of Sottler’s books has been translated into English as far as I know! As usual, it’s a shame, but not entirely surprising, given the gloomy undertones of her work. Don’t you know that in the United States, ALL of the children must be happy ALL of the time, and simply can’t bear to read anything bordering on pessimistic?

from Tri Pesnitve ("Three Poems")
from Tri Pesnitve (“Three Poems”)

Another thing I love about Sottler’s illustrations is that you’re never quite sure what you’re looking at. There’s always another layer to examine, another spiral or lattice to analyze, another element to fit into the story–like the newsprint in the top right corner of this image from “Three Poems,” and the birds that flutter across the shadowy boundary into the white margin. It’s what I imagine the binary code would look like if it were capable of spontaneously transforming itself into images.

I will admit that my infatuation with Sottler’s images started with her first name. “Alenka” is rather similar to “Alina,” isn’t it? And so I was pleased, in a very narcissistic way, that her drawings were outstanding even among the many, many wonderful books that arrived as part of the massive Hans Christian Andersen Award shipment. And so I have saved my favorite illustration for last…

Cesar in roza, image 2
from Cesar in roža

I haven’t provided many biographical details, but Sottler is so well-known in her native Slovenia, and has won so many prizes, that it’s quite easy to simply Google her name and find information about her. But, if you are curious,

  • you can visit her stunning website here,
  • explore a randomized index of her drawings here,
  • read the brief interview with Sottler that I quoted above, and
  • read the biographical sketch of Sottler that was published in the latest issue of Bookbird.

In addition, the Chicago-area independent bookstore Bookends and Beginnings has a small selection of Alenka Sottler’s work available for purchase, including Cesar in roža. More information on their Facebook page.

As I said, I still have one last illustrator to feature: the Hans Christian Andersen Award winner himself, Roger Mello! Check back soon for more astounding illustrations.

Pomp and Snark: Drawings by Svjetlan Junaković

*click images to view full size

One needs no further proof of Croatian illustrator Svjetlan Junaković’s industriousness than the following photo:

books in studio
image source: dossier on Junaković’ prepared by the Croatian section of IBBY for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Jury

Granted, some of these are translated editions. But still!

I can’t read a single word of Croatian, but Junaković’s books still made me laugh out loud. I will get to the hilarious stuff, but first, here are two examples of Junaković”s technique:

Tesla, cover
Nikola Tesla: Snovi koji su nam donijeli struju (Nikola Tesla: the dreams that brought us electricity) by Vera Vujović

A glance at Tesla’s abbreviated bio reveals that in addition to being known as the brilliant inventor of, among other things, the Tesla coil, he was also perceived as a “mad scientist.” In the United States, we tend to white-wash inventors (among other things), but Junaković’s pastiche-like take on Tesla’s life–and madness–takes the young reader on an educational, and refreshingly topsy-turvy, ride.

Next is the darling and clever Pequeño gran mundo (“Small big world”), which luckily for me is available in Spanish! All of the poems are delightful, but the following was one of my favorites:

Pequeno gran mundo, image

Here is my approximate, and imperfect, translation:

“The Sheep and the Mouse”
Why don’t sheep have wool on their feet?
At times it gets very, very cold, and it is almost impossible
to find socks for a sheep.
But luckily, they have so much wool that
thanks to the help of a good friend, their feet never get cold. 

Riddles are almost always better in the original Spanish; there’s just something about the language that’s inherently more playful than English, and I think even a non-speaker can sense that if he or she reads the original text.

But where Junaković really shines is in his sarcastic take on fine art. In Ti racconto L’Arte del ‘900 (“Let me tell you about the Art of the 900s”), for example, Junaković introduces kids to famous 20th-century artists by reinterpreting and subtly mocking their work. Below is a typical page focused on Renee Magritte. I didn’t have time to write down all of the translated text as presented in the dossier, but I do remember that Junaković took substantial liberties when recounting each artist’s biography, their careers, and the meanings of each of their works–all to hilarious effect!

Ti racconto L'arte, image 2

Which leads me to my favorite book, both written and illustrated, by Svjetlan Junaković: “The Big Book of Classical Animal Portraits.”

Das grose buch, cover
Das große Buch der klassischen Tierporträts, translated from Croatian to German by Alida Bremer

Do you recognize Scarlett Johansson Vermeer’s “Girl with a Pearl Earring?” But this is no girl–nay, it is a modest, young female sheep. According to Junaković:

“this painting represents a masterpiece in art portraiture of the 17th century…it portrays a beautiful sheep with a blue turban gazing softly… Due to the immense popularity of this painting, the model chose to remain anonymous in order to retain her privacy. Even today in the region where the painting originates it is said that ‘one has the charming gaze like the sheep with the pearl earring.'”
-translated to English by Nikolina Jovanovic

The fun has only begun.

No longer is La Mort de Marat (The Death of Marat), the famous painting of the murdered French revolutionary, a solemn affair. Junaković subverts artist Jacques Louis David’s classical masterpiece by substituting a chicken for the dashing and unfortunate Jean-Paul Marat.

Das gros buch, image 4

“Dying in the bathroom isn’t a rarity. Dying by the hand of your lover, even less so, but to allow oneself to be portrayed whilst dead in the bath – that’s surely a rarity! Precisely this bizarre theme, just as the unusual technique of the painting, classify this portrait amongst the most vital of Neo-Classical paintings. What more to say than the line between perfectionism and death is very fine.”
-Reimagined by Junaković, and translated to English by Nikolina Jovanovic

It goes on and on, each painting and description more ridiculous than the last. The book shatters the pretentiousness of fine art, while simultaneously taking a more sophisticated approach to the overdone “animal story” for children. The result is a book that delights children and adults alike.

For more information about Svjetlan Junaković, visit his website. (P.S. Apparently some of Junaković’s books are available in English as part of the “Animagicals” series).

A reminder, as always, that this is part of a series I’m doing on outstanding illustrators nominated for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award. I’ve still got two more illustrators to feature before the winner is announced on Monday, March 24! Click the permanent link to “Children’s Literature” in the right side panel to view previous entries. 

Illustrator Spotlight: Byong-Ho Han, South Korea

If you look closely at the list of all of the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award illustrator nominees, you might notice that a lot of them seem to come from Europe. Specifically, 20 of the 30 nominated hail from a European country. Europeans dominate the author nominee list, too. There’s nothing inherently wrong with that–and really, it’s not too surprising considering that the Award is conferred by a Swiss nonprofit.

When compiling the list of illustrators to feature on this blog, though, I made a point to include illustrators from countries that seem to get overlooked. You’ll notice, for example, that I didn’t bother talking about any of the illustrators from the English-speaking world, and frankly, that’s because I’m not usually a huge fan of the illustrations that come from the United States, the United Kingdom, Australia, and elsewhere. Of the 24 times that the illustration Award has been conferred since 1966, all but 5 of the winners were from a European country, and two of those five wins were netted by American and Australian illustrators, respectively. Apart from that, Japan has won twice; Iran, once. No one from Spain, Belgium, China, Latvia, Croatia, Brazil, Slovenia, or South Korea has ever received the illustration award, and I have either already featured or am planning to feature illustrators from all of those countries.

I want to be a bird, image
Saega Doego Sipeo (“I want to be a bird”)

Which brings me to the subject of today’s illustrator spotlight: Byong-Ho Han, who was born in Seoul in 1962. Unlike some children’s book illustrators, Han attended art school and immediately began working as an artist after graduation. It took him only four years after receiving his degree from the College of Fine Arts at Chugye University to publish his first book for children in 1992–remarkably fast for the world of illustration!

Although animals and nature are common themes in many children’s books, Han’s illustrations suggest a deeper connection. In “I want to be a bird,” for example, a flight-yearning man has his wish granted and transmogrifies into a very strange-looking raven–or perhaps he’s a crow? And in “The day baby otter came,” an adorable young otter anxiously awaits the arrival of his new younger sibling.

"The day when baby otter came"
Sudari Odeon Nal (“The day baby otter came”)

The wide-eyed expression the otter wears on the cover, coupled with his inquisitive, yet slightly nervous stance, below, reminds me of how I felt when my little sister arrived from the hospital. I wish I ‘d had a book like this to read, as the anxiousness I felt toward our family’s newest addition didn’t dissipate for quite some time!

The day when baby otter came, image

Han makes a point to celebrate the beauty of animals and nature. According to Samantha Christensen, “Having grown up on the outskirts of Seoul before its urbanization…[Han] recognizes the rapid depletion of the natural environment and uses his artistic style to advocate environmentalism.” [1] Nowhere is this more obvious than in his gorgeous book entitled, simply, “Salmon.”

Salmon, cover
Yeoneo (“Salmon”)

The multiplicity of beautiful drawings showcasing the salmon’s natural strength and fluidity remind me of a National Geographic documentary that I was obsessed with as a kid. I must have re-watched that video 50 times; I always thought it was amazing how far upstream the salmon swam in order to lay their eggs. My scant knowledge leads me to believe that salmon might be significant in Korean culture–or perhaps I’m confusing that with Japan’s respect for the koi. Regardless, there are apparently salmon-fishing festivals held annually in South Korea.

A final, gorgeous image from “Salmon.” I didn’t crop out the text because I think written Korean is incredibly elegant, and it just underscores the gracefulness of the mountains.

from "Salmon"
click image to view full size

I wish I had more information to share about Byong-Ho Han, but unfortunately there is very little to be found about him on the Internet, and as far as I know, none of his books have been translated into English. Perhaps the South Korean section of IBBY will make his nomination dossier available online so that interested parties can learn more about him!

P.S. A quick reminder that this is part of a series on illustrators nominated for the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award. Check back a few days from now for the next illustrator: Svjetlan Junaković of Croatia. Previous entries can be viewed via the permanent link to “Children’s literature” in the right side panel. The winners will be announced on March 24th!

[1] Christensen, Samantha. “Illustrator Nominee: Byong-Ho Han, Korea.”Bookbird Special Issue: 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Award Nominees. Ed. Roxanne Harde. Vol. 52, no. 2, p. 36.

*Please note that there appear to be multiple spellings of Han’s name. He is listed “Byong-Ho Han” in the issue of Bookbird, so that is what I have used here. Sometimes “Byong” is spelled Byeong, Byung, or Byoung.