Printed in a warm shade of evergreen and illuminated by Peter Sís’ signature spare quasi-pointillist pen-and-ink drawings, Pam Muñoz Ryan’s achingly beautiful fictionalized account of the childhood of Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto—better known to the world as Pablo Neruda—employs a dazzling array of forms to capture the genesis of her subject’s poetic genius and budding political activism in The Dreamer.
Thin, sickly, stuttering and shy, Ryan’s young Neftalí is dogged by two opposing forces that wish to direct his life—the imaginative lure of poetic expression and his domineering father. Kirkus asked Ryan and Sís about the challenges and interpretive choices involved in rendering so famous a figure’s life, especially for young readers.
Pam, what inspired you to insert the lyric passages in the text?
Ryan: Rhythm was a presence in Neruda’s life, and I wanted that to somehow translate to the book. I attempted to create a type of soundtrack. I wanted the reader to hear the persistent rain, the call of the chucao, the pounding ocean, and the monotony of the printing press. I hoped the reader would recognize the relationship between the simplest of repetitive sounds and poetry. After I read Neruda’s The Book of Questions, I knew that I wanted to integrate my own questions throughout the story—questions that might parallel the events of his childhood. The “I am poetry” sections came later. Neruda felt that poetry was a direction or a road from which he could not escape. That inspired me to write in the voice of poetry and to personify it, as if it were stalking the dreamer.
As an illustrator, Peter, do you find the story’s magical realism liberating or challenging when depicting scenes?
Sís: Good question…I would say it is more challenging because it’s so loaded and easy to overdo.
Does your interpretation of Neruda’s relationship with his father minimize or exaggerate his father’s insensitivity and brutishness?
Ryan: This was one of the most difficult challenges of this book, to portray the father with dimension. By all accounts...his father was as I depicted him. I must admit that I downplayed his actions. For instance, in my book, Rodolfo [Neftalí’s older brother] insinuates that Father beat him for singing and that he still had bruises. In reality, Rodolfo could hardly walk for days. I wanted to understand why Father behaved the way he did. I discovered that his early years had been difficult. He left home at a young age and struggled to survive. That issue, of wanting a different life for his children, and the cultural issues of a man’s dictatorial role in the family at that time contributed to his personality. I trusted the reader to understand. That is one of the reasons I included Neruda’s poem about his father in the back matter. Neruda came to terms with his father, at least in his mind. After The Dreamer was published, I received a letter from a Neruda academic in the U.S. who added this postscript, “You were generous to the father. You and I both know he was much worse.”
What about Neruda and/or his work moves you, and what in his story do you relate to?
Ryan: From the fifth grade on, I was an obsessive reader, and I carried my favorite books with me. I was also a daydreamer and pretender who could very easily slip into my own wandering thoughts. And like Neruda, I wanted to have a profession that had something to do with books someday.
Sís: Funny, I think that what moves me about Pablo Neruda is a few poems that I knew before I got involved with this project, but most of all his name, which he took from the 19th-century Czech poet Jan Neruda…And our family house is on Neruda Street in Prague.
For more books about art, artists, stories, poetry and authors, click here to see the others from Kirkus’ Best Children's Books of 2010.
Kirkus found quite a few novels with great boy characters to include among our Best Children's Books of 2010. See them all here.
For a complete list of the historical novels that are among Kirkus’ Best of 2010 for children, click here.
Pam Muñoz Ryan; illustrated by Peter Sís
Scholastic / April / 9780439269704 / $17.99