I’ll be honest, before I read Pamela Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer, I knew very little about Pablo Neruda. My knowledge of Neruda could be summed up in one simple statement: he was a famous poet from Chile. But all that changed with Muñoz Ryan’s account of Neruda’s childhood. The Dreamer isn’t strictly fiction or biography. Instead, as it’s described on the inside cover, it weaves together “magical realism with biography, poetry, literary fiction, and sensorial, transporting illustrations, Pam Muñoz Ryan and Peter Sís take readers on a rare journey of the heart and imagination.” In the novel, Neruda, the famous Nobel Laureate literary figure, is dramatically transformed into the imaginative, reflective, shy, and loving child of Neftalí Reyes who would one day become the famous poet.
I find myself struggling to communicate how truly beautiful and captivating this book is. I read it in one sitting because I just couldn’t make myself put it down. I’ve read many reviews and comments of the book that say it is for a “certain” type of child. I understand why they say that, yet I disagree. While “certain” children may take to it immediately, bonding with Neftalí easily, I believe others will be intrigued, as Neftalí’s story shows them an entirely different way of looking at the world—one filled with wonder and awe at the more simple encounters of life. Many students may have once shared Neftalí’s approach to life, but have forgotten it the longer they’ve been part of an institutionalized education system that focuses on achievement, competition, drill and skill, and regimented schedules. Illustrated rhetorical questions like “Which is shaper? The hatchet that cuts down dreams? Or the scythe that clears a path for another?” (p. 92-93) are sprinkled throughout the novel, representing a quite different approach to life.
As I read the book, I was reminded of Brazilian educator Paulo Freire’s discussion that one must be able to read the world before reading the word. There is a definite political component to Freire’s theory that I believe the teenage Neftalí would have understood. Yet, there is another aspect of reading the world that I think young Neftalí actually embodies. He goes through his days reading his world—literally putting words onto the tactile and tangible things he discovers in the world around him. Peter Sís’ beautiful illustrations bring Neftalí’s inner ruminations to life. Neftalí’s story is one of a true adventurer or explorer—but one who does no harm to the people and things around him. If we compare Neftalí with some of the more famous explorers often included in our curriculum, I believe we would find an alternative definition of what it means to explore. In many ways, the book is an homage to nature and the very world around us. It would be the perfect book to read in preparation for a nature or science walk.
As Neftalí discovers the world, he’s also discovering and accepting who he is. Often he finds himself at odds with his father, and suffers the consequences when he doesn’t meet his father’s expectations. Yet, Neftalí remains true to himself. While he is quiet and reserved, his story is one of strength and resistance. Our students need to read stories like this—both so that they have the strength to be and accept who they are, but also so they see the importance of accepting their peers as they are, even if they don’t understand them. Readers watch as the quiet and shy young boy grows into a young adult, ultimately finding his voice as a famous poet and advocate for the oppressed.
If you’re an Albuquerque local we hope you’ll join us this coming Monday October 1st for our Vamos a Leer book group meeting at Bookworks where we will be discussing The Dreamer!
We’ll be posting our Educator’s Guide for The Dreamer this week too, so be on the lookout for that resource!