What a lovely escape from a cold January evening, to chat with the fascinating Roger Mello in the sunshine and brilliant light of a Brazilian afternoon. A conversation with Roger ranges through Brazilian and world cultures and his thinking, like his books, takes you on a journey of cultural and artistic connections. Normally a great traveller, Roger has spent most of the pandemic between his homes in Brasilia and Rio, except for the occasional conference. He has kept up his international contacts through events and talks, one of which is a marvellous interview with him and Peter Sís hosted by the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art which can be found on YouTube.
Roger is an eminent writer and illustrator whose work is celebrated not only in Brazil and South America but internationally, where he has a huge presence in the children’s book world. He is not so well known in the UK and it is a great privilege to bring him to wider attention here.
Roger was born in 1965 in Brasilia, with a military regime in power for the first 21 years of his life – a time, he says, when the utopian ideals for Brazil, in architecture and the arts, collided with despair and restriction. He is sad that times are once again difficult in Brazil, with such a very authoritarian regime, but is optimistic about the next elections. After school, Roger moved to Rio to study design and decided to work on children’s picture books. He now has 100 books to his name, 22 of which he has written as well as illustrated. In 2014, he received the Hans Christian Andersen Award, Latin America’s first illustrator to win this. He has won Brazil’s literary award, the Prêmio Jabuti, eight times and many other awards around the world, including an early success with Meninos do Mangue (Children of the Mangrove) which won the Best Children’s Book International Award in 2002. He has had major solo exhibitions, notably at the International Youth Library in Munich, in France and in South Korea. Currently only four of his titles are available in English, three published by New York based Elsewhere Editions and one by Reycraft, with a fourth Elsewhere title due later this year.
Roger thinks of himself as a person of books, a visual author. He is passionate about this, describing books as ‘always the oldest and always the newest’, a concept which I think describes the role of books in society very well. He loves the idea that very early books were all illustrated, for example The Book of the Dead or the Mayan codices, and that we are now back in a time when illustrated books are very much in vogue. His own books are for him objects or artefacts, with all aspects of text, illustration, design and layout carefully thought through to create an integrated whole. Roger says they can’t be separated, that there is a physical symbiosis between content and form. His Brazilian publisher, Companhia das Letras, has skilfully supported this process with often complex research on inks, colours and paper engineering. For each he produces a dummy book so that this can be carefully realised. This fascination with the dialogue between image, text and design leads to very innovative books where there is notably always a gap, a breathing space, for the reader to fill whether in response to the narrative or the illustration. He wants his readers to work, to think, to find their own answers, to be stimulated to their own storytelling and art. Roger’s mission is to help readers and teachers become confident when talking about the visual, to develop a language to discuss colour, pattern, emotional response, with the same confidence they have discussing text.
Using examples from the books published in English, I talked to Roger about his illustrative style and the stories he is interested in telling. Colour is always the first talking point about Roger’s work. He uses colour in skilful and striking ways. This reflects his belief that colour is a character and must be exactly right in each story. Colours relate to human emotions and provoke responses that can vary from reader to reader, but always engages the emotions.
In Charcoal Boys the subtle colour palette of greys and blacks demonstrating the work of the boys in the charcoal pits is counterbalanced by the bursts of red of the fire and flames, with a final page of dramatic fire shown with a page of cut out tongues of flames in black, orange, red and neon pink.
Pattern is equally important, linking to maths and philosophy. He loves exploring ideas of repetition and difference. Looking at the endpapers and back cover of You can’t be too careful!, the reader is drawn into the patterns and then notices the subtle variations within the image. This brings a real sense of excitement. These differences reference the characters encountered in the story and the patterns reference its circular nature.
Pattern is core to the illustrations of João by a thread (soon to be published in English), an almost surreal dream story set in a fishing community. The net used for fishing becomes the bedspread, the sea, the place of adventure and its filigree design forms the framework within which the narrative takes place. These designs are influenced by traditional Brazilian embroidery, and it is indeed a rich visual treat within a colour palette of black, red and white.
Roger’s use of perspective, particularly in representing and placing individual characters challenges all expectations. Figures often stride the page and are viewed from strange angles. On the opening page of You can’t be too careful!, the gardener is shown tenderly caring for White Rose, his body exquisitely and sensitively wrapped around the flower at the heart of the story. The figure is scarcely separated from his garden as the whole image is green, with clever use of shades and tones and a collage effect to create the difference between body and landscape.
Illustration for Roger always starts with what he calls the trace, the drawing of the line. He works out his ideas with his pen. His wonderful imaginings of people, creatures, plants and places are underpinned by research and accuracy. He spent hours observing and drawing nature for his illustrations for Desertos and Jardines, both written by Roseana Murray.
In 2017, Roger began an exciting cross-cultural collaboration with the Chinese author and 2016 Hans Christian Andersen Award winner, Cao Wenxuan. Their two joint books, Feather and Lemon Butterfly, are rooted in the ideals of the founder of IBBY (International Board of Books for Young People), Jella Lepman. Indeed the concept was developed at an IBBY meeting on Nami Island in South Korea – the idea that two HCA winners from opposite sides of the world could collaborate to develop a book that would have international appeal. Roger works extensively with IBBY promoting the ideas of international collaboration through children’s books. Cao Wenxuan, novelist and professor, says that for him the picture book is a base for exploring his philosophical thinking. Feather, an imaginative take on the ‘Are you my mother?’ story, features a feather’s quest for its origin, for the bird that it belongs to. The feather encounters various birds, asking ‘Am I yours?’ Each bird is beautifully realised with strange and interesting perspectives and angles making full use of the page format which is non-standard, long in width and narrow in height, squashing some of the larger birds, or making parts of their body fly off the page. Some birds are referenced through Chinese ceramic vases, making cultural references to the writer and also to clay as the material of the first human creation. The outside back cover has a small flap which folds into the book and provides a consistent half of the feather, the ‘fingerprint’ of the story, which is matched with the other half feather shown in different colours on each page. This is a very exciting use of book design, referencing movement and stasis.
Though not a didactic author, social commentary underpins many of Roger’s books. Notable is his focus on highlighting child labour and child exploitation. This is core to both Children of the Mangrove and Charcoal Boys, stories of the marginalised, those outside mainstream society. Whilst the specifics here are Brazil, the issues are not exclusively a Brazilian problem. The world benefits from the charcoal burners’ contribution to the pig iron process, used in buildings around the world – and indeed children all over the world are often exploited and denied their childhood. Brazil itself is an enormous country with a a huge range of landscapes and a history that has seen the merging of many cultures from earliest times to before and after the Portuguese conquest. This is the backdrop to Roger’s world and fills every part of his thinking. His current project is a book set in the Amazon.
Roger has worked with Daniel Hahn as his English translator which he has found creative and rewarding, describing his joy at having a poetical correspondence with your translator. Daniel has worked to promote Roger’s work and we must hope that more books will become available in English. For now I urge you to seek out his books in Portuguese or one of the many languages into which they are translated. The illustrations will guide your understanding of the narratives and will thrill and excite you.
Pam Dix is a former librarian and chair of Ibby UK.
Charcoal Boys, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, Elsewhere Editions, 2019
João by a thread, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, Elsewhere Editions, 2022
You can’t be too careful!, translated from Portuguese by Daniel Hahn, Elsewhere Editions, 2017
Feather, Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Roger Mello, translated from Chinese by Chloe Garcia Roberts, Elsewhere Editions, 2017
Lemon Butterfly, Cao Wenxuan, illustrated by Roger Mello, translator from Chinese unknown, Reycraft Books, 2020