Spanish painter, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez, had a black slave, Juan de Pareja. This fictionalized account of the slave’s life follows him from birth into adulthood.
I loved reading I, Juan de Pareja by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino. This book, written in the first-person point of view, won the Newbery Medal in 1966.
I, Juan de Pareja is historical fiction
The novel is based on the real life story of Juan de Pareja, a slave who served a famous painter, Diego Rodriguez de Silva y Velázquez, in 17th century Spain. The main character is compelling and likable.
We meet him as a child living in Seville. Since the book is written as first-person historical fiction, from Juan de Pareja’s point of view, we get to know him well; he confides his deepest secrets and feelings as he passes through a difficult childhood.
Juan de Paraja – an adult in YA literature
After the first few chapters, Juan de Pareja is no longer a child. To me it seemed strange to read a children’s book that violated a primary rule of writing for children – that the main character should be a child – and that’s one reason I decided the book was more suitable for teenagers than for middle grade aged children (8 to 12).
Another reason is that there are many tragic deaths of people around him, including his mother and a young girl. Through most of the book, we read about Juan de Pareja as an adult, living in Madrid, a slave to the painter. He is portrayed as a devoted servant who is happy with his slavery except for one detail: he wants to paint, which is forbidden by law to slaves.
Writing quality and readability
The writing in this book flowed flawlessly so it was pleasant to read, and it took me only a few days to get through it. That’s fast, as I’m normally a slow reader who gets through one chapter per night if I’m lucky. But I, Juan de Pareja fascinated me and at times I couldn’t put it down despite being tired (I read right before sleeping, most nights).
What makes I, Juan de Pareja memorable
One thing I liked about the book was the philosophy Velasquez expressed about painting. In one scene he compared the drawings of two apprentice artists, defacing the excellent work of one of the boys because he had embellished the truth in order to make a still-life of moldy cheese and dry bread look better.
Velasquez said, “I would rather paint exactly what I see, even if it is ugly, perfectly, than indifferently paint something superficially lovely. . . . Art is Truth, and to serve Art, I will never deceive.”
You can find photos of paintings by Velazquez on the internet. The painting included with this review is one Velasquez did in 1650 of his slave and friend, Juan de Pareja.