Slovenian Cats, or, Why Blogging is Amazing

Original Cat Print by Alenka Sottler

A few months ago, I put together a feature on the Slovene children’s book illustrator Alenka Sottler as part of my series on the 2014 Hans Christian Andersen Awards. Like the other children’s literature posts that I do from time to time, the feature was well-received and a few people shared the link on Facebook. Nothing much happened for the next several months, until, one day, a notification from WordPress appeared on my phone. I glanced at it hurriedly, saw the name “Alenka Sottler,” and dismissed it as a fluke — it was early in the morning, I needed a strong cup of coffee, and I was, of course, already late for work. When I returned to the comment later in the day, I could scarcely believe it: Alenka Sottler herself had found my blog.

Dear Alina!
First and foremost, I would like to thank you for your interesting comment on illustrators and my work. I read your text… a while ago and I wanted to add a note but it wasn’t until now that I found the time to send you a few words regarding the ‘digital illustration’ in my book The Emperor and the Rose…  It is a book of modern fairy tales through a woman’s perspective and narrated by using old-fashioned language… by the way, the cat that you like so much is a magic animal in the book. He helps a prince to win a princess. If you would want to have a print of this illustration I would gladly send you one, just let me know the address.
Kind regards from your almost a namesake,
Alenka Sottler

I promptly sent her an email thanking her for the kind words and extremely generous offer to send me an original print of the cat, whose named, I learned, was Motz. After a quick email exchange with Alenka’s assistant, the address was confirmed, and the cat print shipped off.

In the meantime, I moved to New Zealand. It had been 8 months since the original blog post, 4 months since Alenka left the comment, and 4 weeks since I had heard from her assistant. Sure enough, though, Motz the magical kitty arrived in Ohio, U.S.A. in late November after a long overseas journey. I asked to be emailed a photo of the print, which is what I posted above. Although I’ll be gallivanting across New Zealand for the foreseeable future, and it may be another year before I see the illustration in person, it hardly diminishes the beauty of the exchange.

Sottler print, side-by-side comparison

I went back to my original post to compare the two images side-by-side. Motz, as he appears in Sottler’s book “The Emperor and the Rose,” (left), has deep and thoughtful brown eyes, is stenciled slightly darker, and has more of a cool, blue-gray tone. In contrast, Motz, as he appears in the print, (right), has subtly sharper eyes, lending him an intelligent and mischievous expression, and is set against a yellow background. It’s fascinating to see that the grid-like pattern originally extended across the entire sheet of paper, and was probably digitally removed in post-processing. It’s an archaeological remnant, a rare clue about Sottler’s illustration technique, that demonstrates visually the process as Sottler described it: “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.” Traces of the old, blended with modern elements, an artistic fusion that provides classic fairytales with a unique subtext.

So, let’s retrace the steps. A library assistant, enamored with a pile of beautifully illustrated children’s books, decides to write about them on her blog. A Slovene artist, hard at work, reads the post while “perched in a wooden cottage situated on the slope of a mountain range.” Compliments are exchanged, a promise is made, and a magical cat delivered halfway across the world. It doesn’t get much lovelier than that.

I dearly hope that I get to meet Alenka Sottler in person at the 2016 IBBY World Congress in Auckland.

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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.

References

[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.

Fairy Tales with Lisbeth Zwerger

I know that I feature quite a few “unconventional” children’s book illustrators on this blog, and believe me, that is intentional. But that doesn’t mean that the original fairy tales by Hans Christian Andersen, The Brothers Grimm, Charles Perrault, and even Lewis Carroll don’t deserve recognition. There is a reason, after all, why those (often quite gruesome) tales have persisted for centuries. If you are one for classic children’s stories (as even I am from time to time), then Austrian illustrator Lisbeth Zwerger’s interpretations, which seem to be plucked directly from a whimsical child’s imagination, will be sure to satisfy you.

“Thumbeline” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Thumbeline” by Hans Christian Andersen; translated from Danish by Richard and Clara Winston. William Morrow and Company, New York, 1980.

Let’s start with Thumbeline, a classic story by Hans Christian Andersen that was later turned into the shoddily-animated film “Thumbelina” that I nevertheless loved as a kid. What can I say? I have always been short, so the tale of a girl the size of a thumb resonated with me. The original story is quite dark—Thumbeline is kidnapped and nearly forced into marriage not once, but twice, only to escape and nearly starve to death during the winter. Disturbing things about women as property, that. Nonetheless, Zwerger’s illustrations are soft and beautiful, and come very close to how I imagined the story. And, of course, Thumbeline’s friendships with select animals (only those that Andersen deemed attractive or harmless, mind you) are often quite sweet.

“Thumbeline” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Thumbeline”

Although Oscar Wilde was best-known for his satirical portrayals of 19th-century England, he once published a collection of short stories for children that became well-known in its own right. Like most of the other stories written for children during that period, the stories in The Happy Prince and Other Tales are rather pendulous with regard to moral overtones. In “The Selfish Giant,” a tall, ornery man initially refuses to let the children in the village play in his beautiful garden. Zwerger’s soothing and soft-focus drawings bring out the story’s sweet undertones.

Selfish Giant image 1
“The Selfish Giant” by Oscar Wilde. Neugebauer Press Publishing Ltd., 1984.

Considering the volume of stories by Hans Christian Andersen that Lisbeth Zwerger has illustrated, it’s fitting that she won the Andersen Medal in 1990 for her lasting contributions to children’s literature. As I’ve said before, the Andersen Medal is the highest honor of its type, and is often nicknamed the Nobel Prize for children’s literature. Beyond that, Zwerger has won just about every prize imaginable that relates to illustration. Perhaps for Christmas one year I’ll ask for this undoubtedly gorgeous, but rather expensive, compilation of her work.

“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; translated from                        Danish by Anthea Bell. Neugebauer Rights & Licenses Ltd., 1992.

When I was growing up, I thought the Sandman was an evil monster who gave children nightmares. For once Andersen’s characterization is the more lighthearted one:

The Sandman comes in the evening , when children are sitting at the table, or perhaps on their stools. He comes upstairs very quietly in his stocking feet, opens the door softly, and then he sprinkles the finest of sand into their eyes…The Sandman does them no harm, for he is kind to children…He wants them to be quiet so that he can tell them stories…No one in the world knows as many stories as the Sandman. Yes, indeed, he tells really wonderful stories!

At any rate, Zwerger’s illustrations are anything but frightening, even if the above passage does still seem to have (at least from my perspective) some potentially threatening undertones. Here, the Sandman helps a child climb into the story within a picture hanging on the wall.

“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories”

And here the Sandman tells a story about “‘the other Sandman…my brother…called Death.” What a way to introduce children to the concept! Hans Christian Andersen was not much of one for subtlety. Luckily, Lisbeth Zwerger is, and her version of Death isn’t frightening at all, but rather a gallant gentleman atop a steed.

“The Sandman: 7 Good Night Stories” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Sandman”

One of my favorite works of Zwerger’s, though, is Biblical in origin—and, some would say, the very first fairy tale. Despite the violent and vengeful take on Noah’s Ark released in the last year by Darren Aronofsky, I still remember the story as I first learned it in Sunday school: a calming one about animals, peace, kindness, and beginning anew. (For an excellent review of the film, by the way, head on over to Black is White). Luckily, Zwerger’s interpretation falls into the latter category.

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; translated by Rosemary Lanning. Michael Neugebauer Verlag AG, 1997.

You’ll have to indulge me a bit here; I couldn’t resist posting multiple images from this book (still only about 11% of the content by my calculations, in case you’re worried about Fair Use on my behalf)…

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.

“Noah’s Ark” by Heinz Janisch; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.

Coming back again to the traditionally accepted notion of fairy tale, Lizbeth Zwerger’s take on The Seven Ravens by the Brothers Grimm is nothing shy of perfection.

“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; translated from German by Elizabeth D.                 Crawford. William Morrow and Company, 1981.

Like many of the stories by the Grimm Brothers, The Seven Ravens is undeniably dark, even terrifying. It involves a severed finger, after all. But at the end of the day it is about bravery, love, and familial loyalty.

“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Seven Ravens”

When I was in Germany a couple of years ago, doing research at the International Youth Library, I was often struck by how closely Munich resembled the illustrations in so many of the books I’d read as a child. It was very exciting, if slightly eerie, to walk through the country in which many of the original fairy tales were dreamed up. I mean, for goodness sake, the International Youth Library is housed in Schloss Blutenberg, a castle complete with a moat and swans! Suffice it to say that the aesthetic in many children’s books, and especially of those by illustrators such as Zwerger, have much in common with the Western European landscape.

“The Seven Ravens” by the Brothers Grimm; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Seven Ravens”

It was, for a time, if not realistic to expect to marry into royalty, then at least more of a possibility than it is today. After all, I saw something like half a dozen castles in the week-and-a-half that I spent in Bavaria. Often, though, those stories about nobility and royalty, such as The Swineherd by Hans Christian Andersen, involve a test of sincerity.

“The Swineherd” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“The Swineherd” by Hans Christian Andersen; translated from Danish by Anthea Bell. William Morrow and Company, 1982.

In these stories, princes are desirable only when outfitted in princely garb; princesses are considered eligible for marriage only when dressed in billowing skirts and fine jewelry. What, after all, is the point of Cinderella if not to say that one can only be attractive when equipped with the right resources? And so, there is the eternal test—can the nobleman or noblewoman recognize his or her betrothed when they are disguised as a peasant? Or is the attraction based on silk and crowns, instead of good intentions?

“The Swineherd” by Hans Christian Andersen; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “The Swineherd”

Last, but not least, are Zwerger’s gorgeous illustrations for Tchaikovsky’s classic ballet, Swan Lake. Zwerger never completely separates human from swan, such that Odette is perpetually perched on the brink of transformation.

“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; translated by Marianne Martens. Michael Neugebauer Verlag, 2002.

I wish they would make an animated film, or create the set for the dance performance, using Zwerger’s dreamlike, watercolor aesthetic.

“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “Swan Lake”
“Swan Lake” by Pyotr I. Tchaikovsky; illustrations by Lisbeth Zwerger.
from “Swan Lake”

For more information about Lisbeth Zwerger, please see:

A few more of the illustrators that I’m planning to feature soon on this site: Isol from Argentina, Wolf Erlbruch from Germany, and Oliver Jeffers from Australia.  And there will also be a roundup of different illustrated editions of Alice in Wonderland coming soon as well (including Zwerger’s version). Cheers!

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

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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.