The Dreamer, written by Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sís, is a unique story based on Pablo Neruda’s childhood. Pablo Neruda was a poet and a communist best known for his collection of love poems and his odes to common things. He was a supporter of the rights of the Mapuche people and the rights of indigenous people in general, and was advisor to Salvador Allende, a former president of Chile with socialist views.
Pablo Neruda’s original name was Neftalí Reyes, and The Dreamer guides us through Neftalí’s life until the moment when he chooses his pen name. Though fictionalized, The Dreamer is an interesting story of what went on in Pablo Neruda’s early years (even the title suggests the daydreaming character of Neftalí). The Author’s Note in the back of the book is also worth a read: it gives a brief summary of the parts of Neruda’s life not included in the story.
The story begins with Neftalí sick and in bed. He is instructed by his father to stay in bed, and so Neftalí asks his sister, Laurita, to look out the window for him and describe what she sees. When Laurita tells Neftalí about a boot “missing the other,” Neftalí mentions that tomorrow, when he is let out of bed and will be on his way to school, he should pick it up and add it to his collection of odds and ends. This figure of Neftalí, asking Laurita to look out the window for him and cowering in fear of his father, is so different from the Neftalí at the end of the book: the poet figure of Pablo Neruda. In The Dreamer, you also learn about Neftalí’s family members and get multiple perspectives. Neftalí’s father wants Neftalí to stop daydreaming, while—though Neftalí’s stepmother does not say so around his father—she is a supporter of whatever path Neftalí wants to take.
Beautiful illustrations are intertwined with verse in The Dreamer. Pam Muñoz Ryan scatters lines that all form a poem that she has written in the end of the book throughout the pages, titled I Am Poetry, which is fitting, seeing as the book is about Pablo Neruda. The poem gives the shapeless concept of poetry many definite forms. I Am Poetry personifies poetry, with many interesting details and descriptions. For example:
“I am poetry,
lurking in dappled shadow.
I am the confusion
and gnarled branch.
I am the symmetry
and a bird’s outstretched wings.”
Every time Neftalí adds something new to his collection of objects (which is a reference to Pablo Neruda’s collection of poetry Odes to Common Things), you learn a new message as Neftalí’s imagination persists despite other people’s expectations. These messages are: don’t let anyone tell you what to do, be imaginative, fight for what you believe in. A lot of these messages are expressed powerfully in Pablo Neruda’s work. For example, in his poem I Explain a Few Things, which he wrote later in life, he shows that he is willing to fight for what he believes in.
There are many stanzas in I Explain a Few Things that really show the way Pablo Neruda felt and how his mind worked. For example:
“Jackals that the jackals would despise,
stones that the dry thistle would bite on and spit out,
vipers that the vipers would abominate!
Face to face with you I have seen the blood
of Spain tower like a tide
to drown you in one wave
of pride and knives!
see my dead house,
look at broken Spain :
from every house burning metal flows
instead of flowers,
from every socket of Spain
and from every dead child a rifle with eyes,
and from every crime bullets are born
which will one day find
the bull's eye of your hearts.”
Pablo Neruda’s two passions—poetry and political activism—worked well together, and unlike many traditional poets, he was not afraid to express his political views in his poetry. He followed his imagination and his path against the will of his father, and, although some of the events in The Dreamer are fictional, they show this about young Neftalí. For example, when Neftalí finds a library near the beach house he was staying in with his family for summer vacation, he spends his summer reading in his secret hideout: a shack with a small lake in front. The lake is home to two swans, and Neftalí takes care of them. Neftalí doesn’t ever give up writing or advocating for human rights. The Dreamer and the poems of Pablo Neruda inspire us to do the same. The Dreamer is an important story of the life of a famous twentieth century poet… before he became Pablo Neruda.
The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sís. Scholastic Paperbacks, 2012. Buy the book here and help support Stone Soup in the process!