During my decades as a bookseller and my time as assistant to a literary agent who represents children's book authors and illustrators, I told anyone who would listen (and even a few publishers I had contact with) that the world needs a Latina Junie B. Jones - a second grade reading level book series with a main character with a cultural heritage other than white, middle class American. Now, as the librarian at a school with a student population that is 83% Hispanic, most of which are the children of immigrants and travel to Mexico to see family often, I tell my students that they need to grow up and write these books. With Juana & Lucas, Columbian native Juana Medina takes a step down that path.
Juana definitely gives Junie B. a run for her money when it comes to precocity. She has a big creative streak and strong opinions about many things. She loves her dog, Lucas (who, interestingly is not a big part of this first book - probably a marketing decision add an American sounding name to the title), her best friend Juli, Brussels sprouts (or repollitas, Medina peppers her text with Spanish words) and Astroman. Juana does NOT like her school uniform, the school bully and the fact that she has to learn English. But, her grandfather spurs her on with the promise of a trip to the home of Astroman, Spaceland in Florida! Juana thinks, "Now I must learn all the English I can so I can hablar with Astroman in Spaceland."
Medina's illustrations and the design of Juana & Lucas is dynamic, colorful and full of movement, much like Juana herself. Her illustration style and the old world setting of Bogotá reminds me very much of the classic French children's book series, Le Petit Nicolas by René Goscinny and Jean-Jaques Sempé. Juana & Lucas is completely charming and I am so grateful that there is a book I can add to the shelves of my library that provides my students with a new point of view as well as a representation of South America that is far from that of poverty and strife. But, I find I am still waiting for the Latina Junie B. Jones.
While Juana & Lucas is great for presenting a character who lives outside of the USA and is learning English, there was very little about her life that felt different from life in middle-class (white) America. If nothing else, I with that Medina had written more about food, which is such an immediate point of reference when experiencing new cultures, in Juana & Lucas. I have and continue to think A LOT about diversity in children's literature, whether it be a balanced representation of boys and girls on the page or one that genuinely presents the varied cultures and experiences that the Real America (and the rest of the world) is living. A book with a diverse character shouldn't have to carry the weight of representing and educating. Part of experiencing diversity on the page is also seeing how people who are different are also the same. As Betsy Bird wrote in her review of Juana & Lucas, "We want [children] to see themselves in their books (mirrors), see other unlike themselves (windows), and have a way to get from one place to another (sliding doors)." Juana & Lucas feels like a mirror and a window at the same time. And, while I am still yearning for a chapter book series that has the mirror qualities of a Junie B. Jones while also giving readers a window into another culture or diverse life experience, Juana & Lucas is a joy to read and a book that I know my students will embrace.
Source: Review Copy