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Wednesday, September 12, 2012

Book review - I, Juan de Pareja



I had heard of I, Juan de Pareja, by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, but had no idea what it was about.  When I was younger, I went through a phase where I wanted to read all of the Newbery winners, so surely I had held that book in my hands time and time again.  We decided to read it because it was recommended by our History book, Story of the World.  My own knowledge of the Renaissance is sketchy at best, so I thought it would be helpful to spend a little more time studying it.  Already, I know more than I ever learned in school.  I love that about homeschooling.

Juan is a slave in 17th C Spain.  He is owned by the court painter, Diego Velazquez, who painted Pope Innocent X, as well as many portraits of King Phillip IV.  This is historical fiction, so there is a thread of truth to it, and embellishments as well.  There is a fine afterword about which elements are factual, and why the author wrote the story as she did.  The language is beautiful, and challenging.  I recognized many words from my SATs!  It's rare now, I think, to find a children's book with language like this.  The kids were challenged to determine word meanings based on context, but it wasn't so difficult that they couldn't follow the story.  This book is rich with material for language/vocab study.

The themes of this story are racism, slavery, friendship, loyalty, family, truth, and art.  That's just what I can think of offhand!  Catholicism underlies the entire book.  Juan is a faithful man, who understands that his sin separates him from God.  He faces his own moral dilemma--he wants to paint, but as a slave, is not allowed to create art.  I cannot fathom a culture that would prohibit free expression (yes, that's so American).  I find it heartbreaking.  I'm not sure if he couldn't paint because if he sold his works, he would take profits from free men, or if people generally believed that he, as a slave, had nothing to express.  Or worse...that he DID have something to express, and that thing would cause a disturbance in the status quo.  Was a law like that just a means of keeping control?

I, Juan de Pareja is rich with topics that you can study and discuss with your children.  In a book world full of fluff, it's gratifying to read something that encourages children to think.

You can find a free study guide here.

There are a number of books on Velazquez.  I like this one.


1 comment:

  1. I absolutely agree about this book. We read it last year. Something about it really struck me in a profound way. I nearly cried when his master died.

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