A Marvelous South African YA Novel: ‘Dreaming of Light’ by Jayne Bauling

You’re probably tired of hearing me mention that I spent 2 months in South Africa in 2011. Well anyway, I did, and I have a lingering infatuation with the country. So when I spotted the little paperback Dreaming of Light among the pile of IBBY 2014 Honour List books, I knew instinctively that I was going to have to read it. And I am so, so glad that I did.

Dreaming of Light by Jayne Bauling

Dreaming of Light is a mere 111 pages, but it’s richer than some novels twice or even three times that length. When I was nearly finished with the book, I read the brief author bio pasted within the front cover and was completely unsurprised to learn that Jayne Bauling is a well-known poet. The prose in Dreaming of Light is so simple, light, and beautiful that I knew no one except a poet could have spun those gossamer phrases. Fitting, then, that it was included on the 2014 IBBY Honour List for the quality of its writing.

Mostly I think about light, especially the sun’s light, but also all the other sorts of light there are. The light you get when you’re up there and outside at night — the white brightness from a big moon, or the thin smile of light when it still has to grow. The bristly points of light from stars, whole masses of them clustered close together, growing into a swirling spill like milk dropped in water. (p. 16)

The novel is narrated by an 18-year-old boy, a foreign zama zama from Swaziland (that itty, bitty, country just to the right of South Africa that people always seem to forget exists). Like the other illegal immigrants from Mozambique, Zimbabwe, and Lesotho, as well as desperately poor South Africans eager for any work they can find, Regile Dlamini is more or less a slave, a disposable zama zama, known only by that derogative Zulu term used to describe the unfortunate men and boys who toil below the Earth’s surface in previously shuttered mines.

It troubles me when people make noise underground. These rock tunnels have their own sounds, the creaks and groans as troubling as explosions or the roar of rockfall. I imagine men’s noise competing against the earth’s voice, and the earth resenting it, and shifting to punish us. (p. 24)

When I started this book, I assumed that it was set 40, 50, even 60 years ago during South Africa’s mining boom. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It seems that illegal mining has been on the rise in South Africa as recently as the past few years. An article in Bloomberg describes how an estimated 14,000 workers spend months at a time below the Earth’s surface, working to extract ever-more-difficult-to-find gold in mines that were long ago declared too dangerous to work in. This criminal industry generates $6 billion Rand a year, which explains why people are willing to break through the thick slabs of concrete covering mine entrances, force young men and boys recruited illegally from neighboring countries down into the shafts, and refuse to let them re-surface until months afterwards. As you can imagine, many of the workers die from being forced to live underground for weeks, either from exhaustion, poor nutrition, tunnel collapses, or carbon monoxide poisoning.

A substantial percentage of the workers toiling in the mines are children. Bauling’s conflicted hero Regile Dlamini is only 18, yet he has hardened far beyond his years. It is only with the arrival of a hopeful Mozambican boy, Taiba Nhaca, and his small friend, Aires, that the last traces of humanity are awakened within Regile.

Taiba waxes lyrical about the legendary Spike Maphosa, a former South African zama zama who allegedly escaped from the mine in which he was forced to work. Now Spike spends his time working to liberate other children from the same fate. Regile no longer believes that Spike Maphosa exists; indeed, neither do any of the other boys in the mine — except for Taiba. Eventually, Taibi wears through Regile’s tough exterior, reawakening the small kernel of kindness lodged deep within Regile’s largely hopeless existence.

Bauling has remarked that although her YA novels are quite dark, she suspects that they are helpful for children and teenagers facing many of the challenges discussed in her books:

I think teens want and possibly need to read about people their own age facing the same challenges as they do. It’s a way of knowing they’re not alone, and while my stories can be quite dark, I believe they also offer a spark of hope. (source: interview from For Books’ Sake)

The plot of Dreaming of Light might seem farfetched, exaggerated, blown out of proportion, but sadly it isn’t at all. It’s hard to imagine that level of desperation and greed unless you’ve seen it yourself — not that I really have; I’ve just come closer to observing it than some people, I suppose. One would think that by 2014, child trafficking for illegal and often fatal mine work wouldn’t be happening in South Africa, but it is. And perhaps most tragically, there doesn’t seem to be much compassion toward the illegal immigrants who flee even worse economic conditions in Mozambique, Zimbabwe, Lesotho, Swaziland, and elsewhere for a chance at something like prosperity in the relative powerhouse that is South Africa. Just have a look at some of those comments on the Bloomberg article. Racism and xenophobia, that. I remember that when I was in South Africa, people always warned me to be on the lookout for “dangerous Nigerians,” who were supposedly criminal by nature. (I bumped into one at the beach. He wanted my phone number.)

Back to the book. As I’ve said before, it’s beautifully written. Here are a few more of my favorite passages:

Telling someone things about myself gives me a wrong feeling, as if some other person is using my voice, speaking through my mouth. (p. 14)

As if we aren’t facing enough dangers here, forcing the angry earth to give us its gold. (p. 30)

‘It’s a story like smoke, I think. No one can catch it because there’s nothing there. It changes all the time.’ (p. 31)

Will he have turned mad, lost his mind? Become a creature of the darkness? He must belong to the earth after so long. Maybe he won’t want to come out. Won’t want to leave the mine. (p. 43)

I lie on the mattress and stare up at the sky I haven’t seen for so long. The trails of massed stars look like swirls of foam. (p. 61)

‘His hope is in you, Regile.’ Katekani’s voice drops into such thoughts like the first plop of rain into the dust and the end of the dry season. (p. 95)

I don’t want to give away the ending, but suffice it to say that a few tears may have been shed. I was so relieved on Regile’s behalf; I never wanted him to have to go back down into the mine, ever again.

Dreaming of Light is undoubtedly a dark story, not least because everything that is described in the book is actually happening in South Africa. This is one of those rare cases in which I would advise sticking with the recommended age, 12+. It’s almost universally adored on Goodreads, and it is a quick, simple, moving — and ultimately, hopeful — read. Jayne Bauling has a newfound admirer in me. I hope to read many more of her YA novels, starting with E Eights and Stepping Solo.

Overall rating: 5/5

The Witty & Wondrous Illustrations of Isol

Today I bring you a collection of amazing illustrations by the wonderful Isol, arguably Argentina’s most famous illustrator of children’s books. Born Marisol Misenta in 1972 in Buenos Aires, she publishes under the moniker Isol, a quirk that serves to make her all the more endearing. Given my historical interest in the children’s literature of Argentina, I decided that since I’ve already studied Argentina’s most famous children’s book author, María Elena Walsh (post forthcoming), it was high time for me to feature the work of that country’s most celebrated illustrator as well.

Isol || photo by LitteraLund
Photo by LitteraLund

Isol looks exactly how I’d picture a children’s book illustrator. She’s short in stature, with cheerful dark eyes and a mischievous grin. Moreover, she’s usually outfitted in colorful clothes, sporting green boots or bright red tights.

Isol || photo by Stefan Tell
Photo by Stefan Tell

Isol burst onto the scene with her first book, Vida de Perros (“Life of Dogs”), in 1997. It’s a lighthearted but clever tale about a boy who wishes his life could be more like his dog’s. The illustrations are typical of Isol’s earliest drawings: brash, colorful, with splashes and scratches that unabashedly stray outside of the lines.

Vida de Perros || Written & Illustrated by Isol
“Clovis and I don’t understand how Mom is so sure about everything. She says NO!” From Vida de Perros, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1997

Overall, Vida de Perros was an exciting and extremely promising start for the young illustrator. Isol’s earliest publications laid the foundation for a career that Bookbird editor Roxanne Harde has called “both prolific and notable.” Isol’s books have been published in over twenty countries, including Mexico, the United States, France, Korea, Switzerland, Spain, Argentina, and, most recently, Sweden. Isol has already been nominated for the Hans Christian Andersen Award not once, not twice, but three times (in 2006, 2008, and 2014), and made history as the first Latin American illustrator to win the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award in 2013. If the Hans Christian Andersen Medal is the most respected prize in children’s literature, then the Astrid Lindgren Award is the biggest. Recipients are awarded 5 million Swedish Krona (nearly $1 million USD) by the Swedish government, and enjoy a whirlwind of literacy and press events. It’s safe to say that Isol’s well-deserved success has been nothing less than phenomenal thus far!

Just as Vida de Perros was exceptionally well-liked, so was Isol’s next book, Un Regalo Sorpresa (“A Surprise Gift”).

Regalo Sorpresa || Written & Illustrated by Isol
“I thought: If they are chocolates they are going to melt! And what if it’s a kitten and it’s hungry?” From Regalo Sorpresa, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 1998

In Regalo Sorpresa, a boy finds a box hidden in the closet and is barely able to contain his excitement as he imagines all of the things that could be inside. Again, the illustrations are in Isol’s archetypal style, featuring bold, slightly messy lines and exaggerated proportions.

Although it’s always easy to spot books by Isol, it seems that her work is divided into two basic color palettes: one filled with warm-toned reds, oranges, and brows, and the other full of soft, pastel yellows, greens, and blues. The former palette is typical of much of her “earlier” work from 1997–2004. My favorite book from this set is the incredibly creative Piñatas, in which a boy at a birthday party is too afraid to hit the candy-filled decoration. He ends up going on a sort of Twilight Zone journey into a nether region: The City of Broken Piñatas. His guide, a particularly loquacious piñata, takes him to bizarre after increasingly bizarre location. It turns out that only the brave piñatas that get smashed end up living happily ever after. The unbroken piñatas are doomed to reside, interminably, in the Quiet Sea.

Piñatas || Written & Illustrated by Isol
“This is the Quiet Sea. ‘Are those islands?’ I ask.’ Those are piñatas that were never broken; it is the saddest thing here.'” From Piñatas, Ediciones del Eclipse, 2004

In the end, the boy realizes that not only is it perfectly fine to hit piñatas, but it’s a ton of fun as well!

I sometimes wonder how children’s book authors come up with all of their weird stories. Isol has emphasized the importance of creativity in her work. When she won the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award, she shared the following sentiments during her acceptance speech:

I don’t actually think that I must put a limit to my imagination just because it’s a book for children, on the contrary! What reader could be more demanding than a child? Children have a lot of things to discover and I’d better be on their high level in order to satisfy their huge capacity for curiosity.

One of the most prominent aspects of Isol’s short yet distinguished career is her frequent collaboration with Argentine poet Jorge Luján. He read her book Cosas que Pasan and was so impressed that he suggested they work together on a a comic book hybrid. Shortly afterwords, volumes one and two of Equis y Zeta (“X and Z”) appeared.

Equis y Zeta, vols 1 and 2 || Illustrations by Isol
Equis y Zeta, Vols. 1-2. Altea, 2001 and 2003, respectively

The next book that Luján and Isol wanted to publish together, Mon Corps et Moi (“My Body and I”) was considered too strange to be successful. It was rejected by several Latin American publishers, and the co-creators had to look toward Europe to find a publisher. Eventually, Éditions du Rouergue agreed to publish the book in French.

Mon Corps et Moi || Illustrations by Isol
Mon Corps et Moi, Éditions du Rouergue, 2003

The entirety of the text in Mon Corps et Moi is a short poem, as follows: “My body and I are not at all alike / It is flabby and elongated / Whereas I can transform myself. / It walks all straight, / Whereas I go right and left.  / It dives into the water / Whereas I take off for Dreamland. /  It puts on wrinkles / Whereas I always remain the same /  My body and I are not alike at all /  But it is the one I prefer / Because it lends me the eyes through which I see.” (Translation as provided by ALIJA, the Argentina National Section of IBBY, in support of Isol’s nomination for the Hans Christian Andersen Award).

Mon Corps et Moi || Illustrations by Isol
from Mon Corps et Moi

The abstract drawings are the perfect complement to the text, which describes a boy’s strange, almost dissociative, relationship with his body. It’s a heady allusion to the classic philosophical dilemma, the Cartesian divide.

The next Isol/Luján co-creation is Ser y Parecer (“To Be and To Seem”), which again considers the divide between perception and reality.

Ser y Parecer || Illustrations by Isol
Ser y Parecer, SM de Ediciones, S.A. 2005

Jorge Luján was once asked why he enjoyed working with Isol. His comments about her work were insightful and revealing:

The German playwright and poet Bertold Brecht wrote that the first duty of theater is to entertain. I think that under Isol’s aesthetics lies a similar saying: Boring books are not allowed! Isol has an enormous capacity to make visible the psychology of the characters. They don’t look all alike, each one has its own personality, intentions, particular moods… Isol’s work recreates children’s thoughts and aims, in a way she reinvents childhood. Reading her books makes us understand that children have a complex and richer universe than those presented in the majority of books addressed to them. (source; emphasis added)

Ser y Parecer || Illustrations by Isol
“(My nose is tiny, and gets lost in my face), but it can smell biscuits from two blocks away!”

The theme of Ser y Parecer is self-discovery, as the narrator ponders the inconsistencies and absurdities in life.

Ser y Parecer || Illustrations by Isol
“If you wanted to get to know me, I would spin around on one foot!”

But my favorite Luján/Isol collaboration is Numeralia, not least because of the lovely, dreamlike illustrations.

Numeralia || Illustrations by Isol
Numeralia, Fondo de Cultura Económica, 2007

There is an overabundance of basic, instructional books intended to help children learn how to count, yet Numeralia is certainly one of the best. As Luján writes, El 0 para aprender cómo se para un huevo (Zero is for learning how the egg came to exist).

Numeralia || Illustrations by Isol
from Numeralia

And what better way to teach children both the number eight and the concept of infinity than with a drawing of an hourglass?

Numeralia || Illustrations by Isol
“Eight is for describing how the sand slides through an hourglass”

The books that Isol has both written and illustrated are no less delightful. My two favorites are Secreto de Familia (“The Family Secret”) and El Globo (“The Balloon”) because they are both playfully subversive. In Secreto de Familia, a little girl wakes up and finds her mother in the kitchen. Only, she’s never seen her mother look quite like that before!

Secreto de Familia || Written & Illustrated by Isol
“It was like this: One day I woke up earlier than normal. And there she was, preparing breakfast before the rest of us had woken up.”

Horrified, the girl is convinced that her mother is really a porcupine. And then then girl begins to fear that when she grows up, she’ll become a porcupine, too! Of course, it’s all explained in the end.

El Globo is even more subversive. A young girl has come to dread conversations with her perpetually angry mother. One fateful day, the girl wishes that her mother would turn into a balloon. And she does!

El Globo || Written & Illustrated by Isol
“Her mother turned into a balloon and didn’t shout any more.”

There are two more of Isol’s books that I would like to share with you quickly. As usual, I’ve saved my absolute favorites for last! The first, Aroma de galletas (“Scent of cookies”) was born out of a collaboration with Spanish poet Antonio Fernández Molina. It is filled with witty couplets, amusing poems, strange anecdotes, and, of course, some of Isol’s finest illustrations. In his review of the book, Jacques Vidal-Naquet called it “an exceptional moment of reading that is beyond the ordinary.”

Aroma de galletas || Illustrations by Isol

And, finally, the best for last. I’ve seen many bloggers and writers declare that they like Isol’s illustrations for El Cuento de Auggie Wren (“Auggie Wren’s Christmas Tale”) the most. I confess that I have always been a huge fan of collage-style illustrations, not least because I imagine they must take a huge amount of time to create!

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

I will further confess that I didn’t bother to read the book in Spanish. But that’s ok — turns out that the story was originally published in English, and is available online here. It’s a funny little tale about photography, blindness, and Christmas, but Isol’s illustrations lend credibility to its absurdity.

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

El Cuento de Auggie Wren || Illustrations by Isol

There were two other books that I wanted to feature but was unable to. Luckily, both are available online elsewhere. The illustrations for the charming Tener un patito es útil (“It’s useful to have a duck”) can be viewed here, and some of the drawings from Nocturno: Dream Recipes are available on the Imaginaria website (scroll to bottom of page).

Finally, I am extremely pleased to report that no fewer than SIX of Isol’s books are available in English, all through Groundwood Books. You can purchase Beautiful Griselda, Doggy Slippers, It’s Useful to Have a Duck, Nocturne, Numeralia, and Petit, the Monster from the House of Anansi website, here.

In addition, if you live in the Chicago area, several of Isol’s books are available at the newly-opened independent bookstore Bookends & Beginnings, including Petit, the Monster and Numeralia in English, as well as “It’s Useful to Have a Duck” in Swedish and Spanish. More information on their Facebook page.

Isol is apparently already working on her next book. She is married with a baby, and has said that the theme of her next story is simply “babies.” She remarked that “It’s the oldest story in the world, but the newest one for me, and this is how I’m telling it, from this marveled and dazzled strangeness.” I am sure it will be a treat!

For more of my features on children’s literature, including a thorough review of Hans Christian Andersen award-winner Roger Mello, please click the “Children’s Literature” link in the right sidebar.


[1] Archives of the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award blog, March 2013–February 2014. In particular, I referred to the following posts:
Boring Books are Not Allowed!
Isol in Sweden for Litteralund
The Award Week Begins
A Chat with Isol

[2] Leonard S. Marcus. “Northward Bound: The Picture Book Art of Isol.” The Horn Book. 13 November 2013. Persistent URL.

[3] Roxanne Harde. “Isol: Argentina, Illustrator.” Bookbird: A Journal of International Children’s Literature. Vol. 52, No. 2, April 2014. Persistent URL.

[4] Isol’s Author Page on Imaginaria, an online Argentine children’s literature magazine.

[5] Jacques Vidal-Naquet. “Lire en V. O., Livres Pour la Jeunesse en Espagnol.” La Joi Par Les Livres, IBBY France, Paris, November 2002. Translated to English by IBBY Argentina.

[6] The official announcement on the Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award website.

[7] Isol’s Astrid Lindgren Memorial Award Acceptance speech, available on YouTube.

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.” 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.

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.