Monday, April 19, 2010

Review of The Dreamer by Pam Muňoz Ryan

Ryan, Pam Muňoz. The Dreamer. Illustrated by Peter Sis. Scholastic, 2010.

The Dreamer reminds a bit of Carver: a Life in Poems by Marilyn Nelson, or rather, my reaction to it does. Carver so captivated me, treated its subject with such intimate respect, made George Washington Carver come alive for me in such a soul-shaking and immediate way that I fell in love. If I had given birth to a son after reading that book, I would have named him Carver Mitnick (so perhaps it's just as well I didn't, actually).

The Dreamer has the same effect on me. I am not well-acquainted with Pablo Neruda's work, so in fact I am probably missing an entire facet of this book. But the fact that I now want to go out and read every one of Pablo Neruda's poems is testimony to the power of Ryan's vision of young Neftalí, whose imagination leads him through life and shapes the strange and unique way he sees the world.

Neftalí's father is rigid and stern, his stepmother is kind but ineffectual, and his sister and brother are as fearful of their father as Neftalí is. Neftalí is shaped by his family, by his rainy Chilean home, by the lush forests in his land, by the people he meets and the objects all around him. Even everyday objects seem just as real and as full of meaning and worth as anything and anyone else - and this is something children (and apparently middle-aged librarians) can definitely understand. While Neftalí's vision of the world clearly demonstrates his almost fey creativity, he is clearly a very real boy, full of uncertainty and fear and a wish to please his father. The poet within him - no, the poet that is him - is always there, from the very beginning, making him vibrate with extra senses that allow him to experience and express the world like no one else. He is special - and the reader will both love him and identify with him.

Ryan achieves this through magic. How else to explain the way her simple, homey words and phrases, her unadorned descriptions, evoke a sort of trembling of the air around Neftalí, a feeling that he is somehow more present in the world than the rest of us? The sturdy, stocky size of this book with its widely-spaced lines feels comfortable in the hand, while Sis's delicate and evocative illustrations are almost eerily apt representations of Neftalí's state of mind.

Plenty of grown-ups have loved this book. Now we need to get it into the hands of the right kids. Those kids are out there, and it doesn't matter whether or not they have heard of Pablo Neruda, much less read his poems. Kids who live an intense life in their own minds will recognize Neftalí as a soul-mate.

Highly recommended for kids in grades 4 - 6, more or less.


  1. This one was already on my list, but now is even more so!

  2. I just ordered a copy based on your review.