Fifty years after its first publication, the multimillion-copy international bestseller is available again in English, sharing the heartbreaking tale of a gifted, mischievous, direly misunderstood boy growing up in Rio de Janeiro.
When Zezé grows up, he wants to be a poet in a bow tie. For now the precocious young boy entertains himself by playing clever pranks on the residents of his Rio de Janeiro neighborhood, stunts for which his parents and siblings punish him severely. Lately, with his father out of work, the beatings have become harsher. Zezé’s only solace comes from his time at school, his hours secretly spent singing with a street musician, and the refuge he finds with his precious magical orange tree. When Zezé finally makes a real friend, his life begins to change, opening him up to human tenderness but also wrenching sorrow. Never out of print in Brazil since it was first published in 1968,
My Sweet Orange Tree, inspired by the author’s own childhood, has been translated into many languages and has won the hearts of millions of young readers across the globe.
A Brazilian classic with a whimsical and heart-rending essence.
—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)
Blending the tart hardship of poverty with the sweetness of finding things that make life worth living, De Vasconcelos’ fictional work—a classic in Brazil—is based on his own difficult childhood in a suburb of Rio de Janeiro. Entrekin’s new translation makes a good addition for collections in need of diversity.
Capturing the realistically fluid, unformed nature of childhood, the author presents a boy who might lovingly confide in an orange tree named Pinkie, then, moments later, execute mean-spirited pranks and hurl cutting insults. This moving Brazilian classic is rich with opportunities for contemplation and discussion.
—Publishers Weekly Online
José Mauro de Vasconcelos (1920–1984) was a Brazilian writer who worked as a sparring partner for boxers, a laborer on a banana farm, and a fisherman before he started writing at the age of twenty-two. He is most famous for his autobiographical novel,
My Sweet Orange Tree.
The Discoverer of Things
We were strolling down the street hand in hand, in no hurry at all. Totoca was teaching me about life. And that made me really happy, my big brother holding my hand and teaching me things. But teaching me things out in the world. Because at home I learned by discovering things on my own and doing things on my own; I’d make mistakes, and because I made mistakes, I always ended up getting beaten. Until not long before that, no one had ever hit me. But then they heard things and started saying I was the devil, a demon, a sandy-haired sprite. I didn’t want to know about it. If I wasn’t outside, I’d have started to sing. Singing was pretty. Totoca knew how to do something besides sing: he could whistle. But no matter how hard I tried to copy him, nothing came out. He cheered me up by saying it was normal, that I didn’t have a
whistler’s mouth yet. But because I couldn’t sing on the outside, I sang on the inside. It was weird at first, but then it felt really nice. And I was remembering a song Mama used to sing when I was really little. She’d be standing at the washtub, with a cloth tied about her head to keep the sun off it. With an apron around her waist, she’d spend hours and hours plunging her hands into the water, turning soap into lots of suds. Then she’d wring out the clothes and take them to the clothesline, where she’d peg them all out and hoist it up high. She did the same thing with all the clothes. She washed clothes from Dr. Faulhaber’s house to help with the household expenses. Mama was tall and thin, but very beautiful. She was brown from the sun, and her hair was straight and black.
When she didn’t tie it up, it hung down to her waist. But the most beautiful thing was when she sang, and I’d hang around, learning.
Sailor of sorrow
Because of you
I’ll die tomorrow . . .
The waves crashed
Dashed on sand
Off he went
My sailor man . . .
A sailor’s love
Lasts not a day
His ship weighs anchor
And sails away . . .
The waves crashed . . .”
That song had always filled me with a sadness I couldn’t understand.
Totoca gave me a tug. I came to my senses.
“What’s up, Zezé?”
“Nothing. I was singing.”
“Then I must be going deaf.”
Didn’t he know you could sing on the inside? I kept quiet. If he didn’t know, I wasn’t going to teach him.
We had come to the edge of the Rio – São Paulo Highway. On it, there was everything. Trucks, cars, carts, and bicycles.
“Look, Zezé, this is important. First we take a good look one way, and then the other. Now go.”
We ran across the highway.
“Were you scared?”
I was, but I shook my head.
“Let’s do it again together. Then I want to see if you’ve learned.”
We ran back.
“Now you go. No balking, ’cause you’re a big kid now.”
My heart beat faster.
I raced across, almost without breathing. I waited a bit, and he gave me the signal to return.
“You did really well for the first time. But you forgot something. You have to look both ways to see if any cars are coming. I won’t always be here to give you the signal. We’ll practice some more on the way home. But let’s go now, ’cause I want to show you something.”
He took my hand, and off we went again, slowly. I couldn’t stop thinking about a conversation I’d had.
“Can you feel the age of reason?”
“What’s this nonsense?”
“Uncle Edmundo said it. He said I was ‘precocious’ and that soon I’d reach the age of reason. But I don’t feel any different.”
“Uncle Edmundo is a fool. He’s always putting things in that head of yours.”
“He isn’t a fool. He’s wise. And when I grow up, I want to be wise and a poet and wear a bow tie. One day I’m going to have my picture taken in a bow tie.”
“Why a bow tie?”
“Because you can’t be a poet without a bow tie. When Uncle Edmundo shows me pictures of poets in the magazine, they’re all wearing bow ties.”
“Zezé, you have to stop believing everything he tells you. Uncle Edmundo’s a bit cuckoo. He lies a bit.”
“Is he a son of a bitch?”
“You’ve already been slapped across the mouth for using so many swear words! Uncle Edmundo isn’t that. I said ‘cuckoo.’ A bit crazy.”
“You said he was a liar.”
“They’re two completely different things.”
“No, they’re not. The other day, Papa was talking about Labonne with Severino, the one who plays cards with him, and he said, ‘That old son of a bitch is a goddamn liar.’ And no one slapped him across the mouth.”
“It’s OK for grown-ups to say things like that.”
Neither of us spoke for a moment.
“Uncle Edmundo isn’t . . . What does ‘cuckoo’ mean again, Totoca?”
He pointed his finger at his head and twisted it around.
“No, he isn’t. He’s really nice. He teaches me things, and he only smacked me once and it wasn’t hard.”
“He smacked you? When?”