Most people are satisfied to come back from a vacation with a few souvenirs, perhaps a tan and some fond memories. Award-winning author Pam Muñoz Ryan, on the other hand, returned from a recent trip to Chile with the idea for her next book. “Inspiration for books arrives in different ways,” she says in an interview from her home in Southern California. “In this case, it was like a confluence of rivers.”
In preparation for her trip, Ryan had brushed up on the biography and writings of several Chilean authors, including Pablo Neruda, the beloved poet whose work she had read as early as high school. While in Neruda’s native country, she visited two of his childhood homes and became fascinated by tales of his early life. Then, shortly after her return home, she met author and illustrator Jon Muth, who told her a story about Neruda that became, in many ways, the centerpiece of her beautiful new novel The Dreamer, which centers on the childhood of the budding poet.
In the story, the painfully shy young Neruda (known as Neftalí) finds the courage to exchange small gifts with another young child, a stranger, through a hole in the fence that separates their properties. Neftalí receives a beloved toy sheep, and offers up a remarkable pine cone that had already sparked his own imagination. The encounter, and the human connection and imaginative power it conveys, highlight the themes of Neruda’s early life as well as his later writings.
Stories like these inspired Ryan’s own imagination and sent her to the library, where she read biographies about Neruda and also became reacquainted with his writings. “Living with the poetry day in and day out,” Ryan says, “I became particularly fascinated with the Book of Questions and I became intrigued with the idea of integrating questions into my own book.”
Ryan’s novel does incorporate many questions—“Is fire born of words? Or are words born of fire?”—that will rouse young readers’ own inquisitive natures. She hopes that these questions will “allow readers’ imaginations to extend the text beyond the page.” As she wrote the novel, she imagined a reader, a daydreamer or “closet poet,” who might be inspired to jot down his or her own verses and images in the margins of her book.
As is fitting for a novel that relies so heavily on visual details and concrete images, The Dreamer is generously, almost magically illustrated by award-winning artist Peter Sís, whose delicate, pointillist drawings help enhance Ryan’s dreamlike, magical realist world. For Ryan, working with Sís was a true collaboration, a dream come true in many ways: “I’ve been a huge fan of his work for many, many years,” she says. “I remember many years ago going to a museum in Chicago and never even imagining that he would illustrate something of mine one day.”
Ryan, who has published numerous picture books, points out that writing an illustrated novel is a fundamentally different process than writing a picture book for younger readers. “A picture book is a marriage of art and words,” she observes. “When you write a picture book, you write with a more limited palette. In the case of the novel, the words were written first and his illustrations just added a whole new dimension.” Each chapter of Ryan’s novel opens with a Sís triptych that illustrates images, objects and moods that will play key roles in the chapter to follow. Larger-scale drawings also vividly illuminate the fanciful wanderings of young Neftalí’s wholly original imagination, accompanied by lyrical passages of text: “I am poetry, lurking in dappled shadow. I am the confusion of root and gnarled branch. I am the symmetry of insect, leaf, and a bird’s outstretched wings,” Ryan writes.
Young readers—and, in many cases, their parents and teachers—who come to Neruda’s work through Ryan’s fictional portrayal may wants to read more of Neruda’s original poetry. Ryan recommends that young readers start with his Odes, especially his “Ode to a Bicycle” and “Ode to a Lizard,” and, of course, with the Book of Questions. Several of Neruda’s own poems, as well as information about collections of his poetry, are gathered at the back of Ryan’s novel.
Poetry, too often, can be seen by middle-grade readers as opaque, abstract, difficult. In The Dreamer, Ryan expertly utilizes Neruda’s own excitement about nature, his enthusiasm for language and his unbounded imagination to inspire young readers’ inner poets. By giving them her own “book of questions,” Ryan prompts children to consider their own answers, and by doing so, perhaps write the world, as Neruda does, through their own unique perspectives.
Norah Piehl is a writer and editor who lives near Boston.Copyright 2010 BookPage Reviews.
Ryan's (Paint the Wind) wandering and imaginative prose and Ss's (The Wall) quietly haunting art fuse in this fictionalized account of Pablo Neruda's upbringing in the small town of Temuco, Chile. Precocious, terribly shy, and insightful, Neruda (known then by his birth name, Neftal Reyes) is curious about all facets of life, particularly the wonders of nature. "He stood, captivated, feeling small and insignificant, and at the same time as if he belonged to something much grander," writes Ryan when Neftal first sees the ocean. His role model is his uncle Orlando, who owns the local newspaper, but his domineering father has no patience for the boy's daydreaming and love of reading and writing, which ultimately provokes Neftal's passion for finding his own voice. Printed in green ink (as is the text), Ss's stippled illustrations provide surreal visual teasers for each chapter. Larger images pair with poetic questions ("Is fire born of words? Or are words born of fire?") that echo Neruda's The Book of Questions. Stressing "the importance of following dreams and staying determined," the book is an immaculately crafted and inspiring piece of magical realism. Ages 9-14. (Apr.)[Page 55]. Copyright 2010 Reed Business Information.
Gr 4-9--Readers enter the creative, sensitive mind of Pablo Neruda, the Nobel Prize-winning poet, in this beautifully written fictional biography. Ryan artfully meshes factual details with an absorbing story of a shy Chilean boy whose spirit develops and thrives despite his father's relentless negativity. Neruda, who was born Neftali Reyes, sees, hears, and feels poetry all around him from an early age. Luckily he finds understanding and encouragement from his stepmother and his uncle, whose humanitarian and liberal attitudes toward nature and the rights of the indigenous Mapuche people greatly influence his developing opinions. In early adulthood, Reyes starts using the pseudonym by which he becomes known, taking his last name from that of a famous Czechoslovakian poet. Ryan suggests that this was how he hid his activities from his father. Her poetic prose style totally dovetails with the subject. Interspersed with the text are poems that mimic Neruda's style and push readers to think imaginatively and visually. Ss's whimsical pen-and-ink pointillist illustrations enliven the presentation. Each chapter is preceded by three small drawings that hint at something to come. The perfect marriage of text and art offers an excellent introduction to one of the world's most famous poets. An appended author's note gives further insight into Neruda's beliefs and accomplishments. In addition there are excerpts from several of his poems and odes. This unusual selection would be a fine companion to Deborah Kogan Ray's To Go Singing Through the World (Farrar, 2006).--Renee Steinberg, formerly at Fieldstone Middle School, Montvale, NJ[Page 168]. Copyright 2008 Reed Business Information.