My Sweet Orange Tree
By José Mauro de Vasoncelos
Published by Pushkin Press
ISBN 978 1 78269 153 2
Originally published in 1968, My Sweet Orange Tree is a beautiful and touching South American children’s classic, and one of Brazil’s best-selling books of all time. Adapted for the stage, for cinema and TV the book has not been out of print in its original language since first written. It has been translated into 19 languages, but the English version has been out of print for the past 40 years.
Set in the 1920s, the tale focuses on Zezé, the naughtiest and most endearing five-year old in Bangu, a poor suburb of Rio de Janiero. Zezé has an elder brother and two elder sisters who do their best to keep their vivacious younger sibling in line, but it’s a hard job. Zezé has a massive appetite for mischief, which, of course, often gets him into scrapes.
While Zezé never plays malicious tricks on his neighbours and family, they don’t appreciate slipping on the oil he has spread onto a path, or the fear they feel when they see the fake snake he has put in the bushes.
Zezé’s family has nothing. His father cannot find a job in the impoverished neighbourhood where the family lives, and his mother who works long hours in the local factory, so she hardly ever sees her children. When he grows up, Zezé wants to be a “poet with a bow-tie”, but for now he entertains himself with his pranks and by conjuring up friends in his vivid imagination.
One of Zezé’s new “friends” is an orange tree in the yard of the ramshackle house that the family has just moved in to. He calls the tree Pinkie and the two of them have long and meaningful discussions when Zezé has no one else to confide in.
Orange Tree is a portrait of an endearing young boy who is determined to rise above the miserable circumstances of his life. And Zezé’s life does change one day when someone catches him out.
One of Zezé’s favourite pastimes is jumping onto the back of a passing car, hanging onto the fender or spare tyre, and grabbing a free ride. But on one occasion, the driver sees him, and stops. Out of the car steps a Portuguese gentlemen who is soon to have a very big effect on Zezé’s life.
My Sweet Orange Tree moves along at quite a pace, and the enterprising and affectionate Zezé is a character to remember. Equal portions of joy and sorrow are stirred into this emotional and entertaining read for a story that will surely keep readers smiling and perhaps wiping away a tear or two.
It might also give you a very different opinion of the importance of trees next time you’re exploring the great outdoors.
John Millen can be reached at email@example.com