I, Juan de Pareja
by Elizabeth Borton de Treviño
Recommended Age: 12+
The 1966 winner of the Newbery Medal is an historical novel that may have some historical significance itself. It is a story about interracial freedom and friendship that takes place in the 1600’s but appeared in the 1960’s during the great drama of the American Civil Rights movement.
Juan de Pareja was a slave from his birth in Seville, in the south of Spain. As a boy, he loses his mother, his master and loving mistress one after the other and ends up being inherited by his mistress’ nephew: an artist - said to be tight-lipped and strange - who lives in Madrid. On his way to Madrid he suffers unbearable cruelty at the hands of a gypsy muleteer.
But things from that point onward are looking up for Juan de Pareja. His new master is Diego Rodríguez de Silva y Velázquez, a gifted painter who may have been one of the first artists to believe that “truth is beauty.” (The author’s note at the end of the book discloses Velázquez’s only known, authentic quote: “I would rather be first in painting something ugly than second in painting beauty.”) And Juan is to serve him particularly in the studio, mixing his colors and stretching canvas and so on.
A quiet friendship grows up between the two men, and “Juanico” becomes a loved and loving member of the family. At the same time, Velázquez becomes a favorite of the King, casting the story against the background of the Spanish court. Other artists cross the stage, including Peter Paul Rubens and a number of remembered and forgotten apprentices. Family joys and sorrows are recorded: journeys to Italy, palace intrigues, and Juan’s own secret. For, though the law forbids a slave to practice art, he is determined to be a painter like his Master.
This is not only a colorful glimpse of a faraway culture and history, but also a touching story with an inspiring vision of the relationship between two men - one white, the other black - transcending race and overcoming the indignity of slavery. Plus, as a bonus, you can learn a bit about art while you enjoy this rich, beautiful book.
EDIT: Borton died in 2001 at age 97. Wikipedia describes her interesting background and lists some of her other works.