Little in childhood is more magical than reading a beautifully illustrated book. I was an especially lucky kid: my mother is Brazilian, so I had a far-ranging plethora of titles to choose from in both English and Portuguese. It didn’t matter that I sometimes couldn’t understand the words. The shapes were bold, the colors vibrant, and that’s all I really needed to be carried into a different world.
It’s exciting then, that a Brazilian illustrator has become the first-ever Latin American artist to win the Hans Christian Andersen Award, the most prestigious prize for children’s literature. Though Roger Mello has illustrated more than 100 children’s books and authored 20, he is not well-known outside Brazil. His winning of the prize suggests that the world might not only be waking up to Latin America’s fine art, but also to its illustration.
Mello’s work — seen in titles like Carvoeirinhos, Meninos do Mangue, and Bumbá Meu Boi Bumbá — melds indigenous, European, and African influences to create a mystical, allegorical realm. In commending Mello, the award jury wrote that his illustrations “provide avenues to explore the history and culture of Brazil. He does not underestimate a child’s ability to recognize and decode cultural phenomena and images. His illustrations allow children to be guided through stories by their imagination.”
For those unfamiliar with the prize, the Hans Christian Andersen Award has been awarded every other year since 1966 by the International Board on Books for Young People (IBBYB) to illustrators who have made lasting contributions to children’s literature. Winners, which have included Maurice Sendak, Alois Carigiet, and Zbigniew Rychlicki, receive a diploma and a gold medal. IBBYB states on its website:
The Hans Christian Andersen Awards emphasize the value and the quality of children’s books. They have made distinguished works by writers and illustrators of children’s books widely known to the world. They demonstrate that we all possess an essential, inner human realm, shared by all people in spite of other differences, and that children’s books carry with them wisdom that can link the inner lives of children around the earth. Stories for children tell about destiny, grace, and enlightenment, offering hints to illuminate a path between chaos and order, despair and hope, catastrophe and catharsis.