When I first saw The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan and Peter Sís (Scholastic Press, 2010) on a bookstore shelf, I gasped and clutched the book to my chest. I was stunned. Pam Muñoz Ryan and Peter Sís in ONE BOOK? A book for middle grade readers that is a fictionalized biography of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda? I imagine that this is the kind of project editors live for.
The Dreamer introduces us to the young boy Neftalí Reyes and takes us into his life. Neftalí is shy and sickly. He speaks with a stutter. He is also bright, sensitive, and inquisitive. His imagination rich. Numbers from a mathematics homework assignment fly off the page and out his bedroom through a window crack. His bedroom becomes an enormous tree that he tries to walk around. A rhinoceros beetle is his steed through a rain forest.
Neftalí collects rocks, feathers, leaves, and anything that he is curious about – which is just about everything. He is fascinated by the world around him, but above all, he is fascinated by words. Neftalí loves the look of words when they are written, their feel and sound when they are spoken. When he writes, he shows incredible skill and talent for his age.
Using appropriately poetic prose, Pam Muñoz Ryan has written a beautiful portrait of a young poet and shows how he becomes Pablo Neruda, one of the twentieth century’s greatest writers and a winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature. We clearly see and understand how Neftalí’s heart and mind work and how he sees the world around him. Peter Sís’ gorgeous, detailed illustrations amplify Ryan’s writing. The dark green illustrations and the use of the same color ink for the text adds to the book’s poetic, even ethereal, air.
Though characterization for Neftalí was most satisfying, I wish the characterization for his father had been equally excellent. The main conflict in the story is Neftalí’s struggle for acceptance and affection from his father. José Reyes is an often harsh man and he disapproves of his sons’ interests. He is not proud of Neftalí or his older brother Rodolfo, and thinks that their interest in language, literature, and music will never amount to anything. One summer vacation by the sea, he even forces Neftalí and his younger sister Laurita to swim every day even though they are terrified of the water - all in the hopes of changing his children (apparently Laurita is becoming too much like Neftalí) and making them “stronger.” At the beginning of the novel, it is revealed that José Reyes does not want his sons to struggle for money the way he did. But readers need much more than a single line of dialogue to understand why the antagonist in a novel is the way he is.
My other concern with The Dreamer is its quiet plot and how many children might take it. This isn’t a page turner. I really wonder, will many children have the patience for and appreciate the character-driven plot?
One thing is for sure: Readers will come away from The Dreamer inspired. Those new to poetry will find their appetites for poetry whetted. Poetry lovers will find their love for poetry expanded. The book includes an author’s note on Pablo Neruda and some of his poems and odes. Even before readers reach this last section of the book, they will find themselves eager to learn more about Pablo Neruda and read his work. More importantly, readers will find themselves more like Neftalí Reyes, more open to and aware of the poetry that surrounds us every day, the poetry in twigs and pinecones and nests. The poetry of lost mittens and umbrellas and discarded boots and keys.