How do you cope with a progressive loss of sight – not the usual gradual change that most of us will experience, but a much more devastating situation where a ‘black spot’ inexorably covers the seeing eye? This is the experience of the Italian writer, Paola Peretti and it is the situation facing the young protagonist in her debut novel for children The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree. Nine year old Mafalda has Stargardt disease and knows that her seen world is fast disappearing.
Paola Perretti’s home is small town near Verona, strikingly similar to the setting for Mafalda’s world: ‘I needed her to live in a small town, not a city’. Though for Paola this small town is Italian, in the book it is not named and so becomes any small town anywhere enabling every reader to imagine Mafalda living next door. Were there other similarities between author and character’s lives? Mafalda is an only child while Paola has a large family and two sisters. But she says ‘I was very much younger than my sisters and lived my childhood as an only child’. So was it easy to create Mafalda who has a very definite character? It was indeed quite easy; in Paola’s words ‘she is a piece of my soul, my story’. However, she has also drawn on her experience as a teacher of Italian to young children coming to Italy from Africa, China, India, and leaving troubled situations. She tells me that they were wonderful often with incredible stories. She talks about their imagination, their resilience and their ability to both empathise and sympathise: ‘When I write, they are with me’.
Mafalda’s voice is immediate. She is not so much talking to us, the reader, but to herself; it is as if she is confiding her thoughts to a diary. Did Paola keep a diary? Yes and still does as a form of therapy. However, their situation is not quite identical. Stargardt disease is rare among children and Paola has never met a child affected. She herself was not diagnosed until an adult. She tried to imagine a child’s reaction and in particular how difficult it would be to accept what was happening. Her experience of children has led her to appreciate their capacity for imagination. Paola also recognises the way children live in a present, a present that merges into fantasy. When Mafalda is faced with the unthinkable, her reaction is to plan an escape – to run away to live in the cherry tree already peopled with the spirit of her grandmother and the hero of her favourite book, ‘I think it was natural for a child to react in this way.’ Paola observes, ‘When the fear becomes too much, a child will go away in the mind.’
The image of the tree is an important one. It represents something stable in Mafalda’s life and is also a very real way for her to measure the progress of her disease. Paola herself grew up climbing the cherry tree in her parent’s garden, sitting there with the cat, reading. She was not conscious of the distances between her and the tree then; it was a stable element in her childhood. As an adult she gradually realised that looking at it she could mark the way her sight was changing. Another tree is an important feature in Italo Calvino’s The Baron in the Trees (Il Barone Rampante,) which Paola’s father read to her as a child, just as Mafalda’s father does to her. Though ostensibly a book for adults, she loved it as a child. Every child would like to live in a tree; it represents a world of imagination, dreams and memories. It is also in Paola’s words “non-sexist” – a means for girls to reach for something higher, inspiration.
Adults are often on the sidelines in a children’s novel. In The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree there is a very important adult character, Estella, who becomes the positive mentor to encourage Mafalda to grasp life; to be herself. Where did she come from? For Estella is also facing a difficult future. Did Paola want this juxtaposition? ‘When I was writing, I didn’t think about an adult situation. I just wanted there to be a help for Mafalda. In children’s literature there is often a help – an adult or a magic helper. I started to think about other characters in books I have read and Estella was born naturally’. However she gradually changed. Just as Mafalda is marginalised in her class by her disability, Estella is marginalised as a Rumanian, alone and ill. ‘I wanted to give her an important role’ says Paola. ‘She appears to be strong – and yet the reader will quickly understand that Estella too is scared, just as Mafalda is scared – and for Estella, Mafalda is her support.’
Paola is already writing her next book and it has also been triggered by personal experiences. And it is this that characterises The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree, the immediacy of situations and characters, as Paola explains: ‘Everything in the book is a tribute to something, to another book, a particular kind of music, and all things that were part of my childhood’. Now readers can meet Paola through Mafalda, and either reading her words or listening to the audio version that has been created with the support of the RNIB. It’s an enjoyable and rewarding experience.
The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree is published by Hot Key Books, £6.99 pbk.