Long shadows cast in Shadow of a Bull

Shadow of a Bull by Maia Wojciechowska; published by Aladdin Paperbacks, New York, 1964; 141 pages.

Manolo Olivar has lived in the shadow of one of Arcangel’s bravest matadors his whole life, only he didn’t know it until he turned 10 years old.  As the son of Juan Olivar, who was tragically killed by a bull at age 22, he is shadowed by six men who will train him for his matador’s test at age 12.  The dark shadow of cowardice darkens his days as he frets about his first encounter with a bull.  Expectations of his community and of the powerful Count de la Casa put enormous pressure on the boy.  In vivid contrast to Manolo is 14 year old Juan Garcia,  who dreams of being a matador; in fact, he is so sure of his future that he sneaks into fields at night and fights stud bulls in the dark.  His brave self-assuredness sends Manolo deeper into his personal shadows.  In the end, the boy finds sources of light in the local doctor who mentors him and in Castillo, the renowned bullfighting critic.  Both men teach Manolo that living in his father’s shadow is not his only option and that it takes a great deal of bravery to step into the light.

This coming of age story is still relevant more than 45 years after its publication.  What middle-schooler can’t relate to a boy that struggles against the expectations thrust upon him by his family and his community?  What child doesn’t struggle with creating his or her own identity?  Wojciechowska’s writing is elegant yet accessible as she casts Manolo in and out of the shadows.  For this reason, it is easy to understand why this book won the Newbery Medal in 1965.  However, understanding this generation of young adults leads me to believe that this book is not one they would choose to read on their own.  Perhaps an assigned read with accompanying discussions will help them appreciate the book.

I can imagine using this book in a social studies class when studying Spain or in conjunction with a Spanish course to put the language into a real-life situation.  The fact that the book includes a glossary of Spanish words, their pronunciation and definitions was enormously helpful and could spark a discussion about using language in real-world circumstances to make learning easier.  Also, the concept of understanding a culture by its pastimes should be discussed, as this could shed light on the perception of the sport as “cruel.”  The author did a remarkable job of explaining the sport’s place in history while also examining the cruelty to both bull and matador.

2P     5Q     Grade Level: 5-9

Cover Art: A bullfight on a red cover is destined to garner attention.

Suggested Reading List: Keepin’ It Real (Realistic Fiction)

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