Monday, August 2, 2010

1966 - I, Juan de Pareja

I found myself in the children’s section of the county library this week and, skimming across the titles, came to “I, Juan de Pareja,” Newbery Medal winner for 1966. Taking advantage of the opportunity, I checked it out. Unlike most of the other Newbery books, I’d never heard of this one. I was absolutely delighted by this lovely story.

Juan is a negro slave in Spain, born sometime in the early 1600’s, and this is his memoir. Based on real characters and using reasonable and interesting scenarios to fill in the missing threads of their lives, de Trevino has brought a piece of European medieval history to life.

As a boy, Juan has a rough time of it, but his life changes for the better when he is inherited by the great painter, Diego Velazquez. As he grows, he becomes not only the indispensible assistant, but dear friend of his Master.

The description and the vocabulary gracing the pages make the story soar. “Ay, my mother…what a challenge to a painter you would have been! What a delight and torment to try to catch the soft sheen of apple green taffeta and garnet velvet of the mistress’s gown, the sober brown of yours, the pink and gold of your turban, picked up by the gold hoops in your ears and the beautiful dark glow, like that of a ripe purple grape, along your round cheek and slender neck…” And beautiful words; capricious, ignominy, furbelows, annihilating, paroxysms.

Juan is made real, and we care what happens to him. I wanted to keep picking the book up, to read some more, but I did not want to hurry it along; I found too much pleasure in the journey to try to reach the destination too soon.

I think the title of the book, while descriptive, is unfortunate for a child’s book. It has no hook to make the casual hand want to pull it from the shelf and consider it. I have actually come across a renamed young adult book. When I was young, I read a book called “Take Me to My Friend,” and years later found the same book re-titled “Three Desperate Days.” But that treatment is unlikely to ever happen here.


Mel said...

Just finished reading this book. I'm not found of it, and I truly doubt I would have appreciated it as a kid either. maybe if I was an art lover? I found it a bit heavy handed and too "poetic" for me. Reminds me of all the other "historical" novels I read like "girl with the pearl earring", "mid wifes apprentice" etc. So maybe I'm just not a fan of the genre.

On the other hand, as I read the book sitting in the hot tub with a kidney infection, perhaps I was not disposed to liking it anyways?

Carolyn said...

Yes, I don't know that it would have been as popular as the mass market kid's books, or other sorts of genres. There's not a specific plot to hang your hat on. But poetic, yes, I suppose it is poetic, with the imagery and language. I enjoyed the process of reading it, rather than trying to get to the end to figure out what happens.