I, Juan de Pareja is the 1966 Newbery Winner for Children’s Literature by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. Told from the perspective of Juan de Pareja, a slave to the famous painter Velazquez, we see life in the seventeenth century for a slave. When Juan’s mistress dies, he is transferred to Velazquez as a young boy. He is always treated kindly, but he is still not free to do as he likes. Yet, Juan accepts this, knowing he cannot change his lot in life and that God has a purpose for his life here on earth.
Juan secretly teaches himself to paint for it is against the law for a slave to participate in the arts in Spain at the time. He faithfully cares for Velazquez and his family and mourns when Velazquez’s daughter dies at a young age due to illness. He travels with his master all over Italy with his master and faithfully nurses Velazquez when he is ill.
In this book we see Juan make the most of his life. He is faithful. He is loyal. He is a good friend to those whom he serves and meets. He is always cheerful. He follows his passions. He is rewarded in the end when Velazquez grants him his freedom and a wife.
Great novel for portraying the 1600’s and life at court. However, Juan is treated kindly. For most slaves, their lives were dismal and miserable and they were treated cruelly. Most did not have noble masters and most struggled every day doing back-breaking work and struggling to find enough food. Thus, this is a great depiction of a noble’s life and how some slaves were treated.
Juan de Pareja ended up creating works of notable art himself, some of which hang in museums today. He is the exception of the day for a black slave, but an important one. Kids will learn the value of staying true to themselves and to God and the value of hard work despite your circumstances. It’s the age-old story we so value here in America: work hard and you can do anything.
One more great thing about this book: it will make you want to know who exactly was Diego Velazquez and what did he paint? He was the official painter to King Philip the IV and painted many of the royal family’s portraits. His portraits are considered masterpieces for his ability to capture the sitter’s expressions and personality. Personally, I had known who he was and some of his famous paintings, but I didn’t know much about him and his family or Philip the IV. Interestingly, according to Wikipedia, descendants include some of the current royal family of the Netherlands and Spain through his only surviving daughter.
Great historical book. Great conversation starter and great book to dig deeper about the time period and the characters in the book. Great insight into painting the in the seventeenth century. Well-written and true to a slave’s perspective. All around great book.