The Dreamer by Pam Munoz Ryan. Illustrated by Peter Sis (Canada) - (USA)
Finished: Nov. 16, 2010
First Published: Apr. 1, 2010
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Genre: fictional biography, children, poetry
On a continent of many songs, in a country shaped like the arm of a tall guitarrista, the rain drummed down on the town of Temuco.
Acquired: Received a review copy from Scholastic Canada.
Reason for Reading: I wouldn't have read this if I hadn't received a review copy but Ryan is the author of one of my son's favourite books that he has had read to him multiple times, Riding Freedom, and I love Peter Sis' artwork. Besides, I always enjoy a good biography, even children's fictional biographies. The poetry angle did worry me though as I am not a fan of poetry in general (except for the silly, rhyming kind ala Shel Silverstien and specific epic poems).
This tells the story of Neftali Reyes' childhood, better known by his pen name Pablo Neruda, a great 20th century poet and winner of the Nobel Prize, though I've never heard of him before. And quickly sums up his adulthood in the closing chapters. The last pages include a sampling of his poetry. He had a rough, some would call abusive childhood. A mother who died 2 months after his birth, he and his two siblings were raised by a domineering father who had no patience for daydreaming or idleness. He had worked himself up from poverty and expected his sons to have careers that he never had the opportunity for himself. The eldest son wanted to be a singer, and this was driven out of him brutally by the father who set him up as a businessman after sending him to college. His plans for Neftali were even loftier, expecting him to be a doctor. But Neftali fell short of his expectations in every aspect, being a thin, gangly, weak, sickly child who daydreamed, collected bits and pieces of detritus and loved to write. His father tried everything in his power to drive this creativity out of him, but with the encouragement of a newspaperman Uncle he was able to hold on to his ambition, deep down, until he escaped his father's influence. He did change his name though to save his father from the embarrassment of publicly having a poet and government dissident for a son.
The story of Neftali's life is very interesting and the book reads with a gentle poetic flow, in keeping with its subject matter. The book has been printed in green ink as that is how Pablo Neruda himself liked to write. The author Pam Ryan has inserted her own short poetry here and there and the illustrations are accompanied by poetic questions in the form of Neruda's own "The Book of Questions". This will all be a bonus to poetry lovers especially those familiar with Neruda himself. Not liking artsy poetry myself, it didn't appeal to me but didn't bother me much either.
Also the author has used magical realism to delve inside Neftali's imaginative, daydreaming personality writing his fantasies as if they were indeed happening. For instance, there is a scene where he finds a rhinoceros beetle in the forest for the first time and is fascinated with it, as he watches it, it grows larger and larger until it kneels down its front legs and offers itself to Neftali who then climbs aboard and sets off for a ride through the forest. I am a big fan of magical realism but this didn't work for me in this book as it just came across as a device the author was using to make the book even more artsy and poetic. There are several such episodes but they are not overwhelming. Overall, I really did enjoy the story of Neftali Reyes' childhood and would read his memoirs or a non-fiction biography if I happened to cross paths with them but I was not overly impressed with the artsy-f*rtsy ingredients added to this book and would have much preferred a straight historical fiction. Critics, I'm sure will love the book for its artfulness though.