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Monteiro Lobato José Bento
(18831948)
The Yellow Woodpecker Ranch
O Picapau Amarelo

Monteiro Lobato José Bento (18831948) The Yellow Woodpecker Ranch O Picapau Amarelo

José Bento Monteiro Lobato was one of Brazil's most influential writers. Lobato was born in Taubaté, São Paulo.

He is best known for a set of educational but entertaining children's books, which comprise about half of his production. The other half, consisting of a number of novels and short tales for adult readers, was less popular but marked a watershed in Brazilian literature.

Most of his children books were set in the Sítio do Picapau Amarelo ("Yellow Woodpecker Ranch"), a small farm in the countryside, and featured the elderly ranch owner Dona Benta ("Mrs. Benta"), her two grandsons a girl, Lúcia ("Lucy") who is always referred to only by her nickname, Narizinho ("Little Nose", because she had a turned-up nose) and a boy, Pedrinho ("Pete") and a black servant and cook, Tia Nastácia ("Aunt Anastacia"). These real characters were complemented by entities created or animated by the children's imagination: the irreverent rag doll Emília ("Emily") and the aristocratic and learned puppet made of corncob Visconde de Sabugosa (roughly "Viscount Corncob"), the cow Mocha, the donkey Conselheiro ("Counsellor"), the pig Rabicó ("Short-Tail") and the rhinoceros Quindim ("Candy"), Saci Pererê (a black, pipe-smoking, one-legged character of Brazilian folklore) and Cuca (an evil monster invoked by Brazilian mothers at night to convince their kids to go to bed). However the adventures mostly develop elsewhere: either in fantasy worlds invented by the children, or in stories told by Dona Benta in evening sessions. These three universes are deftly intertwined so that the stories or myths told by the grandmother naturally become the setting for make-believe play, punctuated by routine farm events.

Many of these books are educational in a gentle and entertaining way, teaching things through the mouth of Mrs. Benta and by smart questions and remarks, some impertinent, some savvy, by her small and attentive audience. They addressed subjects which children normally do not like at school, such as mathematics, grammar, world history, geography, astronomy, Greek mythology, and so on. In other books, the author, who was a skeptic, a rationalist, an internationalist and had anti-war positions (but at the same time being strongly patriotic and conservative), passes his views on the world, humanity and politics to his children readers. In other books, he tells in a charming and easy to understand way the classics of literature, such as Aesop's fables, Don Quixote and Peter Pan. He created a rich crossover using elements from many sources, literature, movies, mythology and cartoons. Thus, it is quite possible that hundreds of thousands of marveled children who read his stories were influenced towards earnest study, the love of reading, serious careers and world views that reflected Lobato's. He was widely imaginative, such as in his books A Chave do Tamanho ("The Sizing Switch") and A Reforma da Natureza ("Reforming Nature"), where he speculated on the consequences of all humans suddenly decreasing in size (thus predating the motion picture Honey, I Shrunk the Kids), and on what would happen if Emily and Viscount would get hold of a scientific method to change the genes of animals and plants for rational or irrational purposes, with catastrophic results (thus, eerily predicting the current controversy on genetic engineering this was written in 1939!).

The children's tales were turned into widely popular TV programs, including five series of Sítio do Picapau Amarelo adventures, one in the 1950s, another two in the 1960s, another in the 1970s, and the last in the 2000s (the last one is still running on Rede Globo). Several generations of Brazilian children were hooked and educated by his marvelous stories, which seems never to lose currency.

Lobato was also an influential journalist and publisher and wrote regularly for several newspapers and magazines, and was a noted and respected art critic. In fact, he provoked a public controversy when he harshly criticized the writers, poets, painters and musicians, who, in 1922 promoted a Modern Art Week (Semana da Arte Moderna), which was also a watershed event in Brazilian culture in the 20th century. In 1919, he acquired the Revista do Brasil, one of the first Brazilian cultural magazines, and founded, in 1920, his own publishing house. Later, he helped to found and was a partner in two of the most important independent Brazilian publishing houses, the Companhia Nacional and the Editora Brasiliense.

Politically, Lobato was strongly in favor of a state monopoly for iron and oil exploration in Brazil and battled publicly for it between 1931 and 1939. For his libertarian views, he was arrested by the then dictatorial government of Getúlio Dornelles Vargas in 1941. This movement, called O Petróleo é Nosso (Oil Belongs to Us) was highly successful, and the same Getúlio Vargas, now a democratically elected president, created Petrobras in 1952.

He died in São Paulo in 1948.


Brazil, 1955, José Bento Monteiro Lobato

Brazil, 1973, José Bento Monteiro Lobato

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