What reason could a person possibly have for learning “the English” when she speaks perfectly good español? So reasoned author/illustrator Juana Medina, age 4, circa 1984, growing up in Bogotá, Colombia.
“My mom says that she picked me up from kindergarten and I was quite upset and fuming and not happy to have to learn something called ‘the English,’ ” says Medina, author of Juana & Lucas, a vibrant, charming chapter book (ages 5-9) loosely based on the experience. “And she says, ‘Well, you know, it could be really good for you to learn English, because we’re going to Disney World and Mickey Mouse only speaks English.’
“I have a very smart mother,” she continues. “Of course, that was the encouragement I needed at the time—I really, really had to learn English.”
The Juana of Juana & Lucas is a few years older than the author was but every inch as sassy. Juana, who lives in Bogotá, loves reading, a superhero named Astroman, Brussels sprouts, her city, her family, recess, and dessert. Her best friend and constant companion is Lucas, an inquisitive yellow pooch with an expressive face and blue collar.
“He is the smartest and most amazing perro ever born,” Medina writes. “I can’t think of a better friend than Lucas. He is, my absolutely-no-single-doubt-about-it best amigo.”
Juana must part company with Lucas on the first day of school, which ends up being pretty much the worst: she gets into trouble on the bus. Her lunchbox breaks. And her teacher, Mr. Tompkins, announces that, this year, they’re going to have a “ton of fun” learning English together.
“When a grown-up says something is going to be a ton of fun, it means there will be NO FUN AT ALL,” Medina writes. “Not even a single bit of fun. Nada de fun.”
But when the opportunity arises to take a trip to Orlando, Florida—to meet Astroman himself, at Spaceland!—Juana finds herself highly motivated to “work muy, muy hard to learn todo the English that I can possibly fit into the space between my pigtails,” she writes. Of course, Lucas offers moral support.
Medina seamlessly incorporates Spanish vocabulary throughout, reinforced by classic cartoon-style illustrations done in watercolor and ink.
“Exploring storytelling in a second language and trying to tell a sort-of-memory in ways that would be somehow compelling to somebody else was a hard thing for me, first, because English is not my first language,” she says. “I tried to be very observant of children and how they tell stories and what is important to them, to retain some sort of authentic voice without...becoming didactic, with the bilingual aspect, or overly enthusiastic or silly—just genuinely told through the dramatic lens of a second-, third-grader who is going through this intense experience.”
In Juana and Lucas, Medina presents the pure experience, uncolored by the extreme violence of the Colombian conflict of her formative years—a conscious omission.
“Early on, I remember the decision of saying I will not make this a story of violence or touched by violence,” Medina says. “I thought that it would be better for me to share the possibility of empathy with second-graders rather than introduce to them to a very raw story that is still very alive for me that I thought would just create a huge gap instead of enabling a conversation.
“What I wanted with this book, more than anything,” she says, “was just to [bring us] a little closer to each other instead of learning how to find even further distance throughout our differences.”
Megan Labrise writes “Field Notes” and features for Kirkus Reviews.