Long before the meteoric rise of Pablo Neruda, Nobel Prize-winning poet and one of the most important literary figures of the 20th century, there was a sensitive and shy young boy in a small town in Southern Chile named Neftali Reyes. In The Dreamer, Pam Muñoz Ryan gives us the story of how that young boy grew to become the great Latin American poet, succeeding despite or perhaps because of the repression of a hard-willed father who had no regard for his son’s curiosity, creativity and abilities for self-expression.
“On a continent of many songs, in a country shaped like the arm of a tall guitarist, the rain drummed down on the town of Temuco.” From this opening sentence onward, Ryan gives us a narrative of a boy who sees magic and wonder infused in the everyday things of the world. This is a creative outlook native to so many children, but often squelched by societal, educational, or parental demands of conformity. One clear message from this book to children is that it is acceptable and desirable to be curious about the world and empathetic to others, and it is valuable to express oneself, even if in some circumstances it requires great bravery. To this end, the negative portrayal of Neruda’s “blunt father” seems at times extreme to the point of being cartoonish and unbelievable, and yet may be entirely accurate. Ryan’s writing, while clear and direct, attempts to incorporate a sense of the poetic style of Neruda and other modern Latin American writers, full of pleasant figurative language and surrealistic imagery.
Middle grade readers who possess the curiosity or creative impulse of the young Neftali will find much to enjoy and identify with in this book. This book would also serve as an excellent classroom read-aloud in association with any unit on creative writing or poetry. Curiosity, creativity and inquiry are major themes. Teaching applications are multifarious: potential writing prompts abound, and the text overflows with examples of figures of speech.
The book is beautifully printed in green ink (Neruda drafted his own writings in green ink, calling it “the color of hope”) with many interesting illustrations throughout. Peter Sís’ clever and whimsical drawings occasionally stray a little too close to cloying cuteness, but their comprehendible surrealism and symbolism are well-suited for the enjoyment and intrigue of the middle grade reader, and more often than not add depth and meaningful counterpoint to the text.
Overall, this is another strong contender for the Newbery Award in 2011, and it would be surprising to this reviewer if it did not obtain at least an Honor status.
Written by Pam Muñoz Ryan, Illustrated by Peter Sís
Release Date: April 1, 2010