A Brazilian classic first published in 1968 this autobiographical novel gives a snapshot of the world of an underprivileged yet imaginative boy growing up in the shanty towns of Rio de Janeiro. ZeZé aged five has already decided he wants to be a poet with a bow-tie when he grows up. He lives in his own make-believe world often taking his younger brother Luis to the zoo in the back yard where the chickens are tigers and panthers and the back yard becomes the countries of the world. He even befriends an orange tree at their new house and has long conversations with the tree he names Pinkie. He is wise beyond his years asking all sorts of enterprising questions to anyone who will listen. Then Zezé amazes everyone by learning to read fluently. He is sent to school a year early where a kind teacher notices his precocious ability but also feeds him when she sees he doesn’t bring a snack to school. At school he is ‘an angel’ but it is a different story at home. He is brought up by his older siblings as his mother works and his father is unemployed so he is largely left to his own devices. He loves to play tricks on his family and neighbours and is constantly getting into dreadful scrapes and then beaten harshly for his misdemeanours.
Zezé is also a sensitive and extremely kind-hearted boy; in a heart-breaking scene he goes out on Christmas Day to shine shoes so he can bring back a present of cigarettes for his father whom he realises must feel terrible that he has not been able to provide his children with any Christmas gifts. His family, particularly his older sister Gloria, try to do the best they can in dreadful circumstances but Zezé often bears the brunt of their misery. Then at last Zezé finds a real friend. At first, he is beaten for taking a ride on the back tyre of a rich Portuguese man’s car but grudgingly they come to accept one another on each other’s terms and soon become firm friends. Zezé blossoms with the tender care the older man Valadares gives his young friend. And then tragedy strikes.
Told in the first person this story is full of zest and vigour yet is gut-wrenching sad in places. The brutality of the beatings would be shocking to modern day children. Zezé is a bright child who craves affection and misbehaves accordingly – more of a Brazilian Just William than a devil-child. Despite the undeniable charm of the irrepressible Zezé this is not the easiest book for a child to get stuck into. The narrative is episodic rather than flowing and demands a certain maturity. A special book for thoughtful older readers but perhaps more for classroom discussion than cosy bedtime reading.