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Review: The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree - Paola Peretti

Genre: Middle-grade

Published: Hot Key Books, 2018

Rating: 3/5 stars

" All children are scared of the dark. I am too, because for me, the dark is a blindfold you put over your eyes to play a game, but you can't take off when the game is over"

I’ve had this problem before with own-voice stories, where I really want to love them and somehow feel bad when I don’t… That was exactly the feeling The Distance Between Me and the Cherrytree left me with. If you know me, you’ll also know that I’m on a never-ending search for good books that feature disability or chronic illness, as I feel like that’s a subject that’s criminally underrepresented in literature, let alone childrens literature. Whenever I do find one, I always hope it’s a gem. Unfortunately, this was kind of ordinary to me.

Our 9-year old protagonist Mafalda suffers from the same condition the author herself suffers from: Stargardts Disease, a hereditary condition that causes gradual vision loss in childhood. It’s rare for someone to go completely blind from this disease, but unfortunately Mafalda is one of the unlucky few. We follow her over the course of months as her vision gradually decreases, and her world literally becomes smaller and more grey. Supported by her best friend Filippo and her caretaker Estella, she tries to complete the things she wants to do before she loses her sight completely, and cope with her loss before it’s complete.

What I loved most about The Distance Between Me and the Cherry Tree was how well it balances the terrifying and heartbreaking subject matter with the childlike wonder and lightness that a middlegrade novel needs in order to stay bearable for children. Mafalda’s own mindset and the characters of Estella, Filippo and even her cat work well for this.

I also loved the way it truly shows this disease from the perspective of a 9-year old. Mafalda often talks about her fear of the dark, because that’s realistically the only thing she can imagine blindness to be like. There’s no talk of vision-percentages, as that wouldn’t be the way a 9-year old thinks about her sight. Instead, Mafalda measures the progression by how close she has to get to the cherry tree in order to see the blossoms clearly.

What was missing for me was a certain level of depth. There is so much more to an impending disability, and the feelings of an almost 10-year-old about this are bound to be more complicated than portrayed here. Maybe the author underestimated a childrens ability to comprehend or be able to “handle” this, but I feel missed opportunity not to try.

There were also some small things that bothered me: the way Mafalda sometimes feels way younger than she’s supposed to be (more like 6 to 7), yet also talks about love and babies like someone way more mature. Also the fact that her school teaches some very convenient things. When her doctor first tells Mafala about her illness, she says something like “yes, we learned about the macula at school”. No you didn’t; half of my first-year med-students don’t know what the macula is…

You can tell that the author put a lot of herself in the story, which is why I feel even worse for seemingly critiquing her life-story, which is not my intention obviously. But in the end my opinion as a reviewer is worth nothing if I’m not being honest. All in all: an important book for the subjectmatter it touches, but the way it was executed left somewhat to be desired for me.

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