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CHARCOAL BOYS by Roger Mello


by Roger Mello ; illustrated by Roger Mello ; translated by Daniel Hahn

Pub Date: Oct. 8th, 2019
ISBN: 978-1-939810-19-9
Publisher: Elsewhere Editions

The lives of a hornet and a boy unexpectedly intertwine in this vividly illustrated, unusual glimpse of child labor at a coal yard.

Translated into English from its original Portuguese by Hahn, Brazilian Hans Christian Andersen Award–winning author/illustrator Mello’s enigmatic text addresses the humanitarian and environmental stakes of charcoal production. A primarily black-and-white color palette sets a somber tone, while die-cut pages shaped to resemble tongues of orange, pink, and red flame echo the collaged endpapers evoking clusters of embers and ashes. Told in distinct, titled fragments from the hornet’s perspective, the sometimes frustratingly abstruse text offers readers just enough visual and verbal information to construct meaning. The hornet, who guards a larva in its mud nest on a charcoal mound, addresses readers in deceptively plain language peppered with descriptive words and repeated phrases. Skin color is mentioned only in reference to an albino boy, depicted with bright white skin, who struggles to hide from the labor inspectors among the charcoal while the first boy, depicted with dark skin does not. The only named character is the albino boy, whom the hornet christens, unoriginally and somewhat insensitively, “Albi.” The book’s format and Mello’s professional background suggest children are its intended audience, but it’s difficult to envision any child engaging with this book without adult scaffolding. The text is more poetic than informational, and it does not include references for further reading. Still, for those readers who wrestle with it, it’s an unforgettable experience.

An ambiguous ending makes this book truly haunting—and vital.

(Picture book. 8-12)