Pablo Neruda, the great Chilean poet, wrote, “…my poetry was born between the hill and the river, it took its voice from the rain, and like the timber, it steeped itself in the forests.” In her fictionalized biography of him, Pam Muñoz Ryan asks, “Does a metamorphosis begin from the outside in? Or from the inside out?” THE DREAMER explores Neruda's childhood and the roots and inspirations of his poetry.
Neftalí Reyes was born to a domineering father, who wants his sons to be strong, powerful men of industry. But Neftalí and his older brother, Rodolfo, are creative souls more interested in books and music than math and business. Neftalí is shy, stuttering and unsure of himself, and feels most at home surrounded by nature or the many interesting objects he collects, like shiny keys, feathers and beautiful stones. His head is full of stories, and he is entranced by the rhythmic sounds of the forests, rivers and jungles. Though his stepmother tries to protect him, Neftalí is subject to his father's mood swings, strict rules and cruelty. As he grows up, inspired by his uncle, a progressive journalist and activist on behalf of the native Mapuche, Neftalí finds his voice and strength in the written word --- first in political essays and finally in poetry.
Ryan's prose is a lovely and dreamy parallel to Neruda's lovely and dreamy verses, and she tells Neftalí's story with compassion and beauty. Though Neftalí struggles with familial and social expectations, he is steadfast in his identity as someone who needs creative expression, especially through words. At times the story is dark, even harrowing; Neftalí's father forces him and his young sister to swim every day one summer in cold and strong waters, though they are both weak swimmers and terrified of drowning. But Ryan focuses on the power of imagination that Neftalí harnesses, and so the book remains optimistic and hopeful.
Though written for children, it is a story readers of all ages will find much value in: a tale of perseverance and poetry, family and power, art and identity, written in Ryan's sure and slightly unconventional hand. She asks her audience to ponder with Neftalí questions such as, “Where is the heaven of lost stories? Who spins the elaborate web that entraps the timid spirit? What wisdom does the eagle whisper to those who are learning to fly?” Peter Sis's drawings that accompany the tale are airy and fantastical --- a perfect illustration of Neftalí's thoughts and experiences.
THE DREAMER is a wonderful introduction to the early life and work of Neruda and includes an author’s note at the end as well as a selection of his poems. But mostly this is a good story: a compelling and emotional look at a lonely and fanciful boy who grew up to be an important and visionary artist. Evocative, sensual and moving, it will surely inspire young readers to see the world in a new way and encourage them to learn more about Neruda, his native Chile, and poetry in general.
Reviewed by Sarah Rachel Egelman on February 16, 2012