Seeking Global Perspectives in Traditional Literature Picture Books: Part 5

Juan Bobo Goes to Work: A Puerto Rican Tale or Juan Bobo busca trabajo
By Judi Moreillon, Texas Woman’s University

The stories of Juan Bobo have a long history in the oral tradition of Puerto Rico. Similar to the English folklore character Lazy or Foolish Jack, Juan Bobo, or “Simple John,” bumbles through life from misunderstanding to misunderstanding. Sometimes he’s a trickster, sometimes a town fool, but all the time, Juan Bobo is good for a laugh. This character has starred in many books, is featured in school curricula, newspaper serials, puppet plays, and even an animated cartoon. Juan Bobo is both a folk and a popular culture character.

In this book, Juan Bobo Goes to Work/ Juan Bobo busca trabajo, Marisa Montes retells the story of a young Juan Bobo who makes mistake after mistake yet somehow some way, life works out in his favor in the end. When his mother sends him to neighbor Don Pepe’s farm to seek work, she tells her son to hold the money he is paid in his hand rather than put it in his pocket. Juan Bobo performs his task for the day—backwards, of course—putting the bean shells in the wheelbarrow and the beans on the ground. Then when Don Pepe pays him for his work, Juan Bobo misremembers Mamá’s instructions and puts the coins in his pocket—his pockets with holes. The clueless Juan Bobo has no money by the time he arrives home.

At the end of each scene, Juan Bobo’s mother foreshadows the misunderstanding that will happen in the next scene, and story listeners will quickly begin to predict the mishaps that will occur. At the end of Juan Bobo Goes to Work/ Juan Bobo busca trabajo, the boy ties his payment, a ham, to a string and drags it home to Mamá. On the way, he passes a rich girl who can be cured of her illness through laughter. When she sees Juan Bobo dragging the ham and the neighborhood dogs and cats following behind him eating their fill, she laughs and laughs and is healed. Of course, by the time he arrives home, there is no ham, but fortunately, the rich girl’s father sends one to Juan Bobo and his mother every Sunday to thank the boy for saving his daughter’s life.

The predictability of the tale makes it a perfect choice for sharing with young children who are learning how narrative works. Author Marisa Montes sprinkles Spanish words and phrases throughout the English edition; a pronunciation guide is provided at the end of the book. The book is also available in Spanish only. In a brief Author’s Note, Marisa Montes states that most Juan Bobo stories are set in early twentieth century rural Puerto Rico and that the stories have their origins in a mixture of cultures: Spanish, African, and Taino, the island’s indigenous culture. According to The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature, Juan Bobo is also a character in South American folklore.

In 2002, Juan Bobo Goes to Work earned a Pura Belpré Honor Book Award for illustration. Joe Cepeda’s oil paintings depict Juan Bobo’s silly and clueless expressions and the bright, bold palette contributes to the Caribbean cultural context. Coincidentally, Pura Belpré, the Latina librarian for whom the award was named, was the first to publish a Juan Bobo tale in the United States, Juan Bobo and the Queen’s Necklace (1962).

What is your response to this story? What value or message do you hope story listeners will take away from a retelling of this tale? What storytelling techniques could you use to dramatize the action in the story? Can this story support a goal of sharing global perspectives with young listeners? What is the impact of the Puerto Rican character Juan Bobo having entered into popular culture in the United States and beyond?

Thank you to WOW Currents blog readers and graduate students in LS5633: The Art of Storytelling for participating in this month-long discussion.

Works Cited

Montes, Marisa. Juan Bobo Goes to Work: A Puerto Rican Folktale/Juan bobo busca trabajo. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.

Zipes, Jack. Ed. The Oxford Encyclopedia of Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2006. Print.

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10 thoughts on “Seeking Global Perspectives in Traditional Literature Picture Books: Part 5

  1. Saba says:

    I think the best thing about this retelling of a Puerto Rican traditional story is its universal appeal. Juan Bobo’s silly antics ensure that his character remains entertaining despite generations of modifications and embellishments.
    Similar to the legend of Juan Bobo is the character Mulla Nasruddin from the traditions of South Asia, where the old man has been depicted as a wise fool for centuries. Like Juan Bobo, Mullah Nasruddin’s exploits may appear silly at first but will definitely reveal some wisdom tucked away inside when examined closely.
    I think children can relate to Juan Bobo’s innocence and simplicity. His depiction as someone who misunderstands commands and takes everything very literally make his story interesting and thought provoking to both adults and children.
    The action in the story lends itself to be presented as an oral storytelling or even a stage or puppet show perhaps. Finding the dramatic points in the story, effectively using pauses, raising/lower your voice, and authentically using a Spanish accent are all ways to bring the story alive to audiences.

    Husain, Shahrukh. 2011. The Wise Fool: Fables from the Islamic World. Cambridge: Barefoot Books.
    Montes, Marisa. 2000. Juan Bobo Goes to Work. New York: Harper Collins Publishers

  2. Amy G. says:

    My response to Juan Bobo Goes to Work/Juan Bobo Busca Trabajo: A Puerto Rican Folktale is that it is an absolutely adorable story. I found myself laughing numerous times at Juan Bobo’s actions throughout the story. Juan Bobo’s mother sends him out to find work to help support the family. Juan Bobo simply follows his mother’s instructions and each time, ends up failing the task. One message I hope young listeners take away from this story is that in some cultures, children play a large role in supporting the family. Children do not always have the freedom of socializing with other children and even receiving an education can be a luxury.

    To dramatize this story in an effective way, one storytelling technique I would use would be to present the story in the form of a play. I believe this may be the best way to demonstrate Juan Bobo’s innocent, but silly actions. I believe this story can support the goal of sharing global perspectives with young children. Juan Bobo Goes to Work/Juan Bobo Busca Trabajo: A Puerto Rican Folktale is a Puerto Rican version of the “Simple Jack” character found all around the world. Because “Simple Jack” characters can be found in many different cultures, children can learn basic cultural differences by reading these types of stories.
    Works Cited
    Montes, Marisa. Juan Bobo Goes to Work/Juan Bobo Busca Trabajo: A Puerto Rican Folktale. New York: HarperCollins, 2000. Print.

  3. Mindy says:

    With all of the pressures that children face nowadays as they prepare for the latest standardized test, sports tryout, or any other competitive effort, it is imperative that they are exposed to literature that lightens the mood and alleviates some of this pressure. I believe that the book Juan Bobo Goes to Work by Marisa Montes will do exactly that.

    I would hope that all children, no matter their cultural heritage, would read Juan Bobo Goes to Work and take away one or more of the following messages: a) Making mistakes can sometimes be the best way to learn new things. b) Laughing at oneself is not only necessary in life but can often be therapeutic. c) Making silly mistakes cannot only be a way to make oneself laugh but can be entertaining to others as well. Even if no messages are gathered, I believe all children will get a good laugh by reading this book. Laughter is the best medicine, and Melissa Montes illustrates this perfectly at the end of the book when Juan Bobo’s laughter heals the sick girl (p. 25).

    On the first page of the text, Montes emphasizes that even though Juan Bobo gets easily confused, his intentions are always pure as he tries “very, very hard to do things right (p. 1).” What a good reminder to children and adults alike that despite our best intentions, the decisions we make are not always the best ones!

    Montes, Marisa. 2000. Juan Bobo Goes to Work. New York: Harper Collins Publishers

  4. Edgar says:

    I found Juan Bobo’s character to be very endearing. Throughout most of the book, the character is illustrated with an innocent smile that conveys he is well-meaning, and a puzzled look when other characters point out his silly mistakes. Through it all, his mother believes in him, and she gives him other opportunities to prove himself. And she never lashes out at the child for his mistakes.

    Children reading this book might recognize that even fools have special talents. Each of Juan Bobo’s mistakes can easily be translated humorously in a story time or in a dramatic rendition of the story. The titular character is both the fool and the star, with many opportunities for roaring laughter from the audience.

    There is something universal about the character of the fool. Shakespeare’s many fools throughout his plays come to mind, especially since they turn out to be far more clever than the other characters first think. Juan Bobo, similarly, surprises other characters for his ability to make a sick girl laugh despite his inability to get much work done correctly (though, to his credit, he does do a good job sweeping).

    Does anyone find that this book perpetuates the stereotype of Hispanics as unintelligent manual laborers? Or did you find that this book only reflects the resilience and determination of people in general, not just Hispanics?

  5. Elena Baeza says:

    Marisa Montes tells this story in an easy eloquent way by introducing the difficulties Juan Bobo faces. At the same time she is able to implement the Puerto Rican culture through fabulous illustrations. In the School Library Journal book review it states “Montes tells her story well, but Cepeda’s illustrations steal the show. Using his distinctive, vibrantly colored acrylics, the artist creates a characters whose innocence, confusion, and contrition are endearing.” These illustrations bring the story to life and complement the text as well.
    The Juan Bobo goes to work story shows the reader a nice message of perseverance; never to give up even if you are not the smartest kid in the world. I believe this story sends a wonderful message to those children who go through obstacles in life and even though things may be difficult, life seems to always work out in our favor. The story and the illustrations gives a special touch to the story allowing readers to use their imagination by witnessing a different culture. The reader will also learn that in some places in the world not all children have the opportunity to attend school because of the need to work.
    Marisa Montes does a great job retelling the story. If I could use some story techniques to dramatize the action of the story it would be to emphasize Juan Bobo’s perseverance. At the end of the story the reader will notice that Juan Bobo did his best to do things right but somehow always failed. However, he never gave up and at the end he noticed that even the mistakes he made helped someone else. Determination is the key to succeed in life.
    Everyone who reads this book can identify themselves with the story. Juan Bobo is a boy who is obedient to his mom and tries to please her in any way that he can. Children will also learn that in many cultures around the world, children cannot go to school because of their economic status and must help their families economically.
    Montes, Marisa. 2000. Juan Bobo Goes to Work. New York: Harper Collins Publishers
    Oliff, Grace. 2000. “Juan Bobo Goes to Work (Book Review).” School Library Journal 46, no. 10: 150. MasterFILE Premier, EBSCOhost (accessed March 22, 2014).

  6. Elena says:

    Hi Edgar,

    Thank you for your comments. The question you ask is very interesting and something I had not really thought about. It is true that one of the stereotypes about Latinos is that we are unintelligent and only good for labor. However, I feel that not everyone agrees and many people here in the U.S. and around the world see us differently. The story though is a retelling tale that has been published in other cultures, like the English folklore about Lazy Jack. One thing to consider though is that a person who is unfamiliar with Latinos might get that impression if they were to just read this one book.

    I am glad that writers publish books from different cultures because learning about diversity is always very important. However, in this book they are focusing on the mistakes Juan Bobo makes. In a way I guess it can be interpreted the wrong way. I think that the best way to avoid stereotyping a certain culture is to introduce children to a variety of books about the culture; for example, a book about Latinos heroes or historical persons who have made positive contributions to society.


  7. Amy G. says:

    To answer Edgar’s question, I don’t believe the book perpetuates a stereotype of Hispanics. I do believe it reflects the resilience and determination of people in general. I say this because the “Simple Jack” stories are found all over the world from different cultures. The character makes silly mistakes in all the versions. I believe children would just see the innocence of Juan Bobo’s actions and laugh at the results.

    I agree with Elena that the best way to avoid stereotyping cultures is to introduce young children to a variety of cultures. I believe it is much better to begin instilling this while they are very young.

  8. Mindy says:

    Hello Saba,

    I agree that “Juan Bobo Goes to Work” would make a fascinating puppet show. Sadly, author Marisa Montes passed away in 2011, but it appears that her Facebook page is still active. By clicking on the link below, you’ll find pictures of a puppet show production produced by Michelee Puppets, Inc. based on the book, “Juan Bobo Goes to Work.” It appears that the puppet show included at least the characters Juan Bobo, the rich girl, and the cow. I can almost hear the kids laughing as they watch the puppeteers play out the scene where Juan Bobo mistakenly ties the cow’s front legs together instead of tying the cow up.

    Hello Edgar,

    I appreciate Marisa Monte’s version of this classic tale especially because of the patience that Juan Bobo’s mother displays towards him in the face of all his silly mistakes. Like you mentioned, Juan’s mother believes in him, encourages him, and offers him multiple opportunities to prove himself without lashing out at him. It doesn’t appear, however, that all versions are like this. I did some research and located the English version of “Lazy Jack.” In that version, Jack’s mother muttered inappropriate phrases like “You stupid boy,” “you stupid lout,” and “You ninney-hammer (Internet Sacred Text Archive 2010).” It seems to me that changing the words in this way could drastically change the message that comes across, especially to young children. Do you agree?

    Facebook. 2014. “Marisa Montes.” 1111.7830.119309421447593&type=1 (accessed April 3, 2014).

    Internet Sacred Text Archive. 2010. “Lazy Jack.” (accessed April 3, 2014).

  9. Edgar says:


    I’m glad you and Elena brought up the point that for some children, “education can be a luxury.” In this story, for whatever reason, we don’t get Juan Bobo going to school. Instead, we see him helping out his mother (there appears to be an absent father) to earn a living so that she may have enough money to feed them both. When money is tight, all they can afford to eat are rice and beans. American children have the benefit of child labor laws to protect them from having to work at a young age. These same children who read this story may see the lesson that many parents and educators tell children many times: STAY IN SCHOOL! Education helps the child learn some of the problem-solving skills Juan Bobo missed out on. Perhaps with the education he would have grown up with the opportunities to become a grocer like Señor Domingo or the unnamed profession of the rich man at the end of the story.

    What other subtle lessons do you think educators and librarians can extract from this story?

  10. Elena Baeza says:

    Juan Bobo is a collection of stories that originates from Spain based on the oral traditions of Spanish picaresque novels and Wise Fool tales. Juan Bobo is essentially a character and many stories have been written based on him. The stories are actually mixtures of several cultures and religions such as African, Spanish, Indian and Christianity (Lastra 1999). These tales also have many different names for Juan Bobo (Dumb Juan) such as Juan Simple (Simple John), Juan Cuchilla (Cutting Juan) and Juan Animala (Animal Juan). I was trying to find a tale which depicted Juan as an animal, but I couldn’t find one, this would be interesting to look at. The Journal of American Folklore collected Puerto Rican folklore from 1916-1929 (Lastra 1999). These stories are considered to be original tales from Puerto Rico that offer unique stories about this great island. The character of Juan Bobo has now made its way into the United States. At first people not familiar with Puerto Rico might think that people from their might be uneducated, or tricksters such as portrayed in the books. Children reading these books might keep these negative thoughts inside unconsciously. I think the stories are great, but they show only one aspect of the Puerto Rican culture. Other folktales and stories are needed to counter these believes with hero like characters such as the African hero Anansi.

    Lastra, Sarai. 1999. “Juan Bobo: A Folkloric Information System.” Library Trends 47, no. 3: 529. Academic Search Complete, EBSCOhost (accessed April 5, 2014).

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