Acclaimed children’s author Aida Salazar tells the story of Jovita Valdovinos, a revolutionary figure to whom she is distantly related and who is sometimes described as “Mexico’s Joan of Arc,” in Jovita Wore Pants. Molly Mendoza’s dazzling art enhances this thrilling picture book biography, which transports readers to early 20th-century Mexico as Valdovinos transforms from an adventurous girl to a daring, clever leader.
The book opens as young Valdovinos, wearing a dress and braids, gazes out the window and dreams of wearing pants so she can join her older brothers’ outdoor fun. Soon, she begins to do just this, sneaking out of the house and tucking her skirts into her bloomers. Salazar’s exquisite prose shows how these clandestine escapades enriched and strengthened Valdovinos: “Jovita discovered the way the leaves rustle when rain is coming, where healing plants grow, the shape of every cave, and what might lurk inside.”
Valdovinos later uses these childhood lessons as she follows in her father’s and brothers’ footsteps and joins the Catholic Cristero forces in their rebellion against the secular Federales. After Federales kill her father and brothers, the grief-stricken Valdovinos dons pants, cuts her hair, calls herself “Juan” and continues the crusade her family members gave their lives for. The book deftly captures Valdovinos’ dynamic metamorphosis into a warrior in a series of stunning spreads. We see her engulfed in a torrent of tears after learning of her family’s brutal deaths, watch her slash through her braids with a large knife and witness the avenging heroine on horseback as she commands a company of 80 soldiers.
Mendoza’s illustrations are a whirlwind of color and energy. Her curved, fluid lines (the bend of a river, the rise of a hillside, the wind-whipped tail of a rambunctious stallion) create a sense of action and excitement. Every inch of these spreads is filled with motion as we see, for instance, 15-year-old Valdovinos leaping over a brick wall “with the stealth of a fox” to escape government soldiers. Mendoza brilliantly uses color to convey mood, from the predominantly turquoise, yellow and orange scenes of Valdovinos’ carefree childhood, to the brooding purples, blues and dark reds of the tumultuous revolution.
A five-page essay, accompanied by photos, adds informative details about Valdovinos’ long life after her peaceful surrender to the Mexican government. With frank mentions of the realities of war, including violence, torture and death, Jovita Wore Pants is best suited for elementary-age readers who will appreciate this stirring biography of a woman “who defiantly turned her country’s cultural patriarchy on its head.”