Monday, July 14, 2014

My First Newbery of the Summer

It was windy during my morning run, so I took off my earbuds when I was cooling down in order to listen to the wind in the trees. Having grown up in Delta Junction, wind in the trees is the background music of my entire childhood. I love it.

Running with earbuds is a very new thing for me, and I'm of two minds about it. The music actually makes running easier, because it distracts you from any discomfort you might be feeling. It's also an opportunity to listen to whatever music I want without kids telling me to change the station. However, it also keeps you from hearing anything going on around you. You can't hear the birds sing. Safety can be an issue, because you can't hear traffic, and you can't hear bikes, dogs or other runners coming up behind you. (Yes, I'm slow enough that I can be passed by other runners!) Just last week, a woman south of Anchorage was mauled by a bear while she was out running. Undoubtedly, part of the reason why is the earbuds she was wearing. Perhaps there was a warning sound she could have heard if she'd been listening. I'm sure I'll continue to wear them, but I have to remind myself to make my other senses more alert when I do.

As I've mentioned, one of my summer reading goals was to read three Newbery Medal winning books that I hadn't before. I brought three home from the library at random. "I, Juan de Pareja," by Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, was one of them. I can understand why it won the Newbery Medal. It's a beautiful and well-written piece of historical fiction, with luminescent and admirable characters, and an engaging story line. I can also see why it's not popular with today's young readers. Unfortunately, historical fiction seems to have really fallen out of favor with the readers of today. Even third graders are begging for Dystopian, and if it's not that, then they want fantasy or adventure. In historical fiction, often the action is much more subtle, and for the less accomplished reader, there is not as much to draw them in.

This story, though fictionalized, is based on the life of an actual man, Juan de Pareja, who was a slave in the household of Diego Velazquez, official painter of the Spanish court in the 17th century. Juan becomes Velazquez' assistant, and becomes an invaluable and cherished part of both his studio and his home. Written in first person, it follows Juan's life from early childhood, through a tumultuous change of ownership, after which he ends up with Velazquez. Then we continue with Juan through his many years of service to the painter, in which he becomes an accomplished artist in his own right, earns his freedom, and eventually finds love.

This book is beautifully written, and very obviously a labor of love for the author. I was the first person to check this out from our library in years. I will recommend this to my advanced readers at school, and have high hopes that I will get someone to read it. Part of the trouble with these older books is that kids think they have a "boring" cover. They are not even getting picked up and perused. I often think that if they reissued some of these older books with a snappier cover, they might draw in a new generation of readers. Much as I love many of the newer series, there are so many other wonderful titles out there that kids are missing out on.

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