Happy Birthday: Celebrating Elizabeth Borton de Trevino

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino, whose historical fiction book I, Juan de Pareja, won the Newbery Medal in 1966, was born on this date in 1904 in Bakersfield, California. She died at the age of 97 on December 2, 2001.

Ms. Borton de Trevino was not Hispanic, but she married a Mexican man and moved with him to his home, Monterrey, Mexico, then to Mexico City, and finally to Cuernavaca. The couple had two sons, and one of the sons, Luis, inspired his mother to write I, Juan de Pareja by telling her the story of the slave of a seventeenth century Spanish artist.

I, Juan de Pareja tells the fictionalized story of Spanish painter Diego Velasquez and his slave and protege, Juanico. Juan posed for one of Velasquez’s most famous paintings, and Velasquez taught Juan to paint even though it was against the law for a slave to learn a profession in seventeenth century Spain. The story itself moves rather slowly and covers a great many years in the life of Velasquez and Juan de Pareja. As the relationship between the two men grows, Velasquez comes to see Juan de Pareja as a friend and an equal instead of a lowly and inferior slave.

Review clips:
Shelley at Book Clutter: “While this was an interesting and somewhat educational children’s novel, I certainly didn’t find it to be a page-turner. I had a hard time imagining a child finding it at all engaging, and thought it was peculiar that the main character is an adult for a very large portion of the book.”

One Librarian’s Book Reviews: “I thought this story was beautiful and terrible. It showed the kinds of extremes slaves felt (at least in Spain) experiencing sometimes the good and sometimes the horrible.”

Sandy at The Newbery Project: “Although I like historical fiction, I’m afraid I was often bored by Juan de Pareja’s narrative, and I frequently wondered just how probable the story was.”

Linda at The Newbery Project: “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.”

There you have it–a fine example of mixed reviews. This book might very well be a hard sell for the TV generation, but for that very reason, I considered it a valuable part of our curriculum last year when we were studying Renaissance history. However, I read the book aloud to my children because I knew that they would complain about the slow pace if I required them to read it to themselves. Juanico is a sympathetic character, and the story of how he became a painter and a friend and encourager to the great Velasquez is worth the time and effort, especially for those interested in art and the history of art. Of course, when reading the book it is recommended that you look online to find and view some of the paintings mentioned in the story.

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino wrote three volumes of autobiographical memoir: My Heart Lies South: The Story of my Mexican Marriage, Where the Heart Is, and The Hearthstone of My Heart. I’d like to add at least the first of these to my TBR list. It seems an especially appropriate selection for September, Hispanic Heritage Month.

Elizabeth Borton de Trevino on her family’s reading of Kristin Lavransdattir by Sigrid Undset (good book, by the way):

I got hold of the book first. I sat in a corner with that novel and could not do anything but wash and dress mechnically, eat what was put in my hand, sleep reluctantly, and read, for two weeks. Next, my sister seized the book and she was tended, as I had been, and relieved of every household task and duty until, sighing, she turned the last page. Then my mother said, “All right, girls, take over. It’s my turn.” And she never moved or spoke to a soul until she had finished it. My father did not care. He was rereading, for the tenth enchanted time, the African journals of Frederick Courteney Selous, the great English hunter, and while we were in medieval Norway, he had been far away in darkest Africa, with all the wild forest around him. That is the kind of family we were.

Thanks to Peter Sieruta at Collecting Children’s Books for the quotation.

One thought on “Happy Birthday: Celebrating Elizabeth Borton de Trevino

  1. That account of reading *Kristin Lavransdatter* sounds all too familiar. Except I had small children, so I *must* have done the household work somehow. I would say with the book in one hand, but I got the whole trilogy in one volume and I’m not sure I could have lifted it one-handedly.

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