cover image Charcoal Boys

Charcoal Boys

Roger Mello, trans. from the Portuguese by Daniel Hahn. Elsewhere Editions, $20 (56p) ISBN 978-1-939810-19-9

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 whose own dome-shaped home duplicates in miniature the shape of the boy’s oven: “My house keeps an egg, his house embraces the fire.” In moments snatched from the desperate search for food, the hornet 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. The charcoal boy and hornet share the same fate: they’re small, vulnerable beings whose lives are blighted by forces they can’t see. While the story’s grim content and its enigmatic prose-poetry—“I just have to shout with all the strength in my wings”—may make it a difficult choice for the stated age range, Mello’s distinctive work burns with poetic truth. Ages 5–8. [em](Oct.) [/em]