Welcome to this week’s Newbery Pie. Today, Sara and I are discussing I, Juan de Pareja, winner of the 1965 Newbery Medal, by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. We’ll kick things off with Sara’s review.
It had to happen some time: my first unpleasant Newbery reviewing experience. I, Juan de Pareja takes the reader to the world of 17th Century Spain. Juan de Pareja, referred to affectionately as “Juanico,” is a slave of artist Diego Velazquez. At first I was appalled at what seemed to be inappropriate content for a children’s book. For example, a visiting artist asks for a nude model, the household balks, yet finds loosely clothed models to hopefully satisfy the visitor’s demand. Another off-putting thing about the book is that women are stereotyped as the hysterical female; at one point, Diego’s wife is described as wanting to throw herself out the window because he is leaving.
As the book went on, I missed these parts because at least they were interesting. The central plot of the story is that Juanico wants to paint, yet slaves are forbidden from taking part in the arts by law, but he does it anyway and then feels badly. B-O-R-I-N-G. As I told Benji today, Juanico stealing colors and then refusing to go to confession put me in a coma. Last night, I read 7 pp. and fell asleep. And, I’m Catholic, and actually understand all the religious elements. I cannot begin to imagine a kid reading this book. We’ve had a copy in our K-5 library for over 20 years and it has been checked out once. The ending redeemed the book somewhat, but all I really wanted was for Juanico to stop whining.
Many elementary school librarians are elementary school teachers first. This was not true for me. 15 years ago, I mistakenly thought I wanted to be a high school English teacher. I quickly realized that I like little children much better than teens. While getting my English degree, I took an entire course on Seventeenth Century Literature. If you are interested in this time period, I highly recommend reading something written by someone who actually lived in it.
I give I, Juan de Pareja 2 pies.
This one was definitely the hardest winner to get through since Sara joined the challenge. Not a whole lot happens, and it takes a long time for what does happen to get started. Plus, something about a book by a white lady about a black man and how tolerable (you might even say nice) his slavery was, just didn’t set that well with me. Juan even implies at one point, that he’s glad he’s a slave because life isn’t that good for a black boy on the streets. Needless to say, that was all kind of problematic for me. It gave me the same unpleasant vibes that I got from Amos Fortune, Free Man.
There were a few things that I did like, though. I enjoyed Velazquez’s discussion of art, how real art it supposed to portray the truth no matter how ugly it might be. (Although, I did find this kind of ironic in a novel beautifying slavery). I liked when the plot actually started to happen, when Juan was painting in secret because it was illegal for a slave to make art. I thought it was kind of beautiful that he just couldn’t help it.
The ending was pretty satisfactory for me, too, and I really liked Lolis, who becomes Juan’s wife. (Too bad we don’t meet her until the very end) Even though she has a nice mistress, and even admits that she is fond of her, she still hates her slavery, and that’s how I think I would feel if I was a slave with a kind master. “Yeah, you’re a decent guy, but you still own me, and that’s kind of a problem, you know?”
So yeah, there were problems, but there were some good things, too. It still wasn’t as bad as Smokey the Cowhorse or The Dark Frigate. I give it three Newbery Pies
Next up: Up a Road Slowly by Irene Hunt