Book Review: Juana and Lucas by Juana Medina

The first time I heard the term “multiculturalism” was during my undergraduate study at Appalachian State University.  Up to that point I had never given thought to bias or cultural norms. I  knew the “n-word” was bad and that racism still existed in the world, but in my own little sphere of influence I never had to face anything remotely resembling social justice or civil rights.  After all, the Appalachian Mountains weren’t the most culturally diverse areas of the world.

When I started working with kids, my world changed.  Suddenly, I was forced to look at the world through a new set of lenses.  My life experience was not the same as my students.  The way the world saw some of my kids was not necessarily the way it saw me.  I knew I had to change.  And in a greater sense, I had to do my part to change the way the world saw my kids and, even more importantly, the way my kids saw themselves.  In order to meet the needs of my kids I needed to re-educate myself and start to see life through multiple sets of lenses.  I had to find resources that would speak to all of my kids, not just a select few.

As a children’s librarian, the desire to reach as many kids as  possible through books is key to my mission, yet finding resources for my kids can be a tough, tough task.  Through my lenses, too many multicultural books present non-white cultures and families with a sense of “otherness,” as if the dominant Anglo-American culture is of greater value through its sense of normalcy. I desperately want to see stories that provide a view of life outside the “American bubble.” Juana Medina’s Juana and Lucas did that for me.

The story is told from Juana’s point of view. She is an upper elementary-aged girl living in Bogota, Colombia. Although her father is absent from the story (he died in a tragic fire), Juana’s family is omnipresent as Juana deals with school problems, most notably the fact that she must learn “the English.” I was reminded of Judy Moody in reading the text, mostly because Juana has a slight sense of misgiving that belies her age.

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Nonetheless her character is easily relate-able and kids will fully understand her angst and frustration as she navigates bullies, her teachers, her mother, and her task of learning English.

Although Lucas appears on the cover and in the title, the dog is not a major catalyst in the story. He acts mostly as a confidant for Juana to express her inner thoughts in a non-threatening way.

Juana’s grandfather is an American-trained physician. While it is recognized that he has experienced American culture, his identity is still fully Colombian. A sense of global connections permeates the story in ways I have not seen in many books for upper elementary.

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No character disparages other cultures in any way. In fact, the townspeople help Juana understand that their local economy depends on visitors from other nations.

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Learning English not only supports their local economy it also helps facilitate cultural exchanges. In the end, Juana realizes that English is only one language out of many she can learn. She ends the story expressing her desire to learn even more ways to communicate with people around the world.

The text is structured such that Spanish words are interspersed throughout.  Many kids will notice how similar some words in Spanish are to their English counterparts.  For example, fabuloso and fabulous.

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This book is not appropriate for students who are just learning English. The English vocabulary is quite rich, so students with a limited understanding of English will struggle. I believe the book is a great choice for students who are seeking a new or greater understanding of global cultures as well as students whose experiences are similar to Juana’s, such as having to learning a new language yet maintaining a strong sense of cultural identity. Highly recommended.

Teacher Resources

Giving kids a global perspective has never been more important.  This book would be a great choice for introducing kids to modern Colombian culture.  Far too often we get wrapped up in teaching kids about ancient South and Central American cultures without giving sufficient thought to modern life in those locales.

Time for Kids has an excellent set of pages to introduce kids to modern Colombia.

The Smithsonian Folkways has resources for Grades 6-12 that uses music to teach about life on the plains of Orinoco, Columbia.

National Geographic for Kids has profiles for various countries throughout the world, including Colombia.

If you have in mind a craft, consider DLTK’s Countries and Cutlures Crafts for Kids.  This blogger has numerous craft ideas to support a study of Colombia.

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