Laurinda’s Rating: 3.5/5
I, Juan de Pareja, the 1966 Newbery Winner, tells the invented story of Juan de Pareja. Juan was born to a slave in 16th century Spain and spent his early years in Seville, the pampered pet of a rich woman. His first mistress gave him the gift of letters, taking the time, even though she was only semi-literate, to teach Juanico how to read. After her death, and several misadventures, Juanico arrived in Madrid to serve her nephew, the painter Diego Velazquez. Juanico made himself indispensable to Diego, learning how to perform the many task associated with making art. Juanico harbored a secret desire to paint, a pursuit forbidden to slaves. Through his own hard work and the kindness of his master, Juanico won his freedom and his heart’s desire, becoming Juan the man instead of Juanico the slave.
I rather enjoyed this book. Juan is a strong narrator and an interesting character. His struggle to be true to himself while also fulfilling his duties to his beloved Master is inspiring. All the relationships between characters are rich, with the author conveying great depths of feeling without excess verbiage. Although completely invented, I loved how devoted the King was to Velazquez and vice-versa.
For a book written in the mid-1960’s, the book’s approach to slavery is…interesting. While I am well aware that slavery varied greatly in its specifics across ages and locations, the author’s depiction of freedom as the evil (Juanico was brutally beaten when he tried to run away from the gypsy – author’s term, not mine – who was hired to take him to Madrid) and slavery as a loving relationship just strikes a dissonant note in the context of the Civil Rights Movement. Of course, Juan’s wife offers the perspective of loathing slavery, so there is an acknowledgement of multiple points of view.
I’d recommend this one for strong readers in late elementary school or middle school. It’s of particular interest to those with an interest in historical fiction, as it’s set in the Golden Age of Spanish society, or in art history, for obvious reasons. Juanico has much to teach kids about perseverance and always following their dreams. After all, despite more challenges than most modern kids, Juan built skill by observing and practicing painting, then managed to parlay his skill into freedom and his own life.