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‘We need the literature of other countries to expand our
horizons and stimulate our ideas. Without it, we are not only
diminished, we are starved’
(The Times, Magnus Linklater 29/06/05)
Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree (The)
by Paola Peretti
Age Range: 9-11
Nine-year-old narrator Mafalda has a degenerative eye condition. As she poignantly measures the distance at which she can see the cherry tree near her school, using it as an indication of how rapidly her eyesight is failing she also compiles a list of things she cares a lot about that she won’t be able to do when her sight is completely gone: this includes playing football with the boys, counting the stars in the sky at night, making goodnight light signals at the window, playing her pavement game and most importantly climbing up her beloved cherry tree.
As time progresses, Mafalda begins to realise, with the support of her family, long-suffering cat Ottimo Turcaret and the help of her friends Filippo and Estella the Romanian caretaker at school, what will be truly important in her life when she ultimately loses the ability to see.
The Distance Between Me And The Cherry Tree, the first children’s novel by Italian author Paola Peretti, is based upon her own experience of Stargardt Disease, a rare genetic illness which causes progressive vision loss eventually leading to complete blindness.
The novel’s powerful message does not shy away from the realism of the situation, either the pain or the challenges of sight loss, equally though, it presents a sense of optimism, a source of hope, as Estella helps Mafalda to realise that to live in fear is not to live at all.
Peretti ensures that Mafalda’s vulnerability inspires empathy rather than pity. As her condition deteriorates Mafalda’s determination and courage begins to shine through and come to the fore. The story, both tender and thought-provoking, sets out at a gentle pace as the distance between Mafalda and the cherry tree becomes shorter and shorter. Mafalda’s growing friendship with Estella is beautifully captured, especially as it turns out that she too has her own reasons for understanding what is important in life.
The poetic language is perfectly captured by Denise Muir’s lilting translation. The description of Mafalda listening to music creates incredible moving imagery – she wished she could see Filippo’s fingers running across the piano – “because the beautiful music they’re making is filling my head, taking my hand and telling me to run with it, the way a friend would. So I run, I run along a never-ending keyboard that turns into a beach, and the notes are waves. I jump over them, into them, like a dolphin now, free. The music commands the sea, making it move at its will.”
A bitter-sweet story that is both inspiring and empowering.