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Charcoal Boys


By Roger Mello

Translated from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn

Beautifully illustrated by Roger Mello with sophisticated, highly textural paper cutouts, Charcoal Boys is a poetic and sensitive portrait of a child living under difficult circumstances. Charcoal Boys offers a unique perspective on the life of a young boy working in Brazil’s charcoal mines: that of a wasp who follows the child throughout his day. Through the wasp we observe the hardships the little boy faces, from his work at the furnaces to his relationships with the other workers. Mello allows the little boy’s strength and resilience to shine through in this moving condemnation of child labor. Charcoal Boys was recognized by USBBY as a 2020 Outstanding International Book.

Published: October 8, 2019
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Striking neon color and incendiary die-cut flames illuminate a hornet’s observations of the dire situation of two young boys forced to work in the charcoal fields.
USBBY/School Library Journal 2020 Outstanding International Books List citation

Roger Mello’s flame oranges and reds, gray washes, ash white, and black foretell a serious story that reflects those hues—of a child who works in Brazil’s coal mines tending an oven that turns wood into charcoal. A poetic but focused wasp follows the young boy and narrates his story, which turns out to be the wasp’s story as well—seemingly insignificant beings on the periphery of more powerful thrusts. Mello has crafted a story that invites children (and their adult friends) to participate in the narration itself, by filling in gaps the wasp has left for them.
Kerri Arsenault, Orion

It is the spaces between these snapshots of narration by the hornet, the deliberate holes left open to interpretation, imagination, and invention, that leave the reader questioning long after the reading is done. Charcoal Boys has a depth that would be a delight to unpack.
Victoria DiMassa, Glass of Wine, Glass of Milk

The unique and stark illustrations, created in highly textured layers of paint and paper, are gallery-worthy . . . This book is a work of art.
Clara Hendricks, School Library Journal

This haunting story from Hans Christian Andersen medalist Mello, sensitively translated by Hahn, explores the life of a Brazilian child laborer who tends a domed oven in which wood is burned to make charcoal . . . The story is narrated by a sharp-eyed hornet [who] . . . watches the boy at work as he dodges labor inspectors and tussles with a companion over a cigarette. Mello uses dingy grays and blacks to depict the boy’s surroundings, but when the precious cigarette starts a brush fire, hot pink and orange die-cut pages create a conflagration in the book’s center . . . Mello’s distinctive work burns with poetic truth.
Publishers Weekly

Elegant linework mixes with torn paper and soft, textured colors as a parade of luminous, exotic caricatures and their accoutrements unfold . . . the effect is magical. The interactions probe issues around wealth, possession, and compassion. . . . Complex and provocative, this Brazilian import will intrigue readers who like puzzles.
Kirkus, Starred Review

What to make of this idiosyncratic picture book from Brazilian author-illustrator Mello? Told by an observant hornet, it’s the story of two boys in a coal yard where fiery ovens make charcoal . . . The book is filled with haunting enigmas that are as tantalizing as the vaguely expressionist, non-representational illustrations executed in black, white, and shades of grey (there is smoke everywhere) and accented with neon pink and orange (there is also fire everywhere) . . . The fascinating mix of words and images invites—almost demands—rereading to tease out meaning.
Booklist, Starred Review


A marvel of art, story, and imagination.
Laura Farmer, The Gazette: Eastern Iowa

Roger Mello’s illustrations allow the child to be guided through stories by their imaginations. The stories demonstrate a broad international understanding. The illustrations are both innovative and inclusive, and incorporate images that promote tolerance and respect between individuals from different cultures and traditions.
Hans Christian Andersen Award 2014 Jury

Roger Mello’s sophisticated, circular tale takes the reader from one link in the quirky narrative chain to the next through a series of precisely illustrated vignettes. Each image, produced in a variety of techniques from color pencil wash to collage, is a highly stylized feast for the eye, while the storyline pursues a range of fantastical scenarios and finally winds its way back to the first motif of a white rose. Text and images invite the patient and imaginative young reader to follow this intriguing sequence of events backwards and forwards in multiple re-readings.
Gillian Lathey, School Library Association

Through wordplay, dreamlike images, and a playful lightness of touch, You Can’t Be Too Careful! expresses serious questions about the importance of kindness and the dangers of greed.
MPR News Staff


  • Read Roger’s 2014 Hans Christian Andersen acceptance speech here.
  • Listen to Roger on the Fuse 8 n’ Kate podcast here.