When you see The Dreamer sitting on a shelf, you will want to pick it up and hold it in your hands. From the shimmering cover that invites you into the universe of Neftalí’s head, to the thick paper that feels perfect under your fingers, to the calm green color of the ink, to the tiny illustration of an acorn that greets you on the title page, this is a book full of small treasures. In a story that is about taking delight in the smallest details, kudos to the designers who made the physical object of this book reflect the subject matter so beautifully.
Neftalí’s family lives under the shadow of his domineering father, a railroad man. Happy family moments are stopped cold by the sound of the train whistle that announces Father’s impending return. Rodolfo, Neftalí’s older brother, has already abandoned his dreams of studying music and becoming a singer, and Father is doing his best to railroad Neftalí onto the same path of leaving dreams behind and pursuing the future of Father’s choosing. But while Neftalí appears to be a weak, vulnerable child, he has hidden reserves of strength and stubbornness.
Munoz-Ryan does a wonderful job of capturing the nuances of Neftalí’s character. His compassion and curiosity are almost overwhelming, and they often get the better of Neftalí’s desire to please his authoritarian father. His fascination with words is woven into the text as he plays with their sound and meaning. The story is episodic, and the scenes are well chosen to crystallize the moments that made Neftalí into Neruda, but they also hang together well to tell a story of a shy young man with a highly developed sense of wonder. One of this book’s greatest strengths, in terms of getting it into the hands of children, is that it easily stands on its own as a novel. There is no need to know anything about Pablo Neruda to appreciate this book – in fact, there is no need for a reader to even know that it is based on a true story. While being aware of Neruda’s life certainly adds layers of resonance to this book, the story will be enjoyed by anyone who can appreciate Neftalí’s struggles and his unique outlook. The selection of poetry in the back of the book, which includes several of Neruda’s poems that directly address some of the pivotal moments in the book, is expertly chosen to appeal to young readers and may convince some young readers to seek out more.
While Munoz-Ryan’s telling of Neftalí’s childhood is wonderful, the collaboration with Peter Sis makes the story sing. Each chapter begins with three small pictures on a single page, each picture showing some scene, feeling, or object that will be important to the text. These tiny drawings echo the small treasures that Neftalí collects, and they evoke the fascination with the world around him and the attention to detail that define Neftalí. Larger drawings, all in Sís’ characteristic stippled style, illustrate the fantastical ways in which Neftalí sees his world while also working in relevant lines from Neruda’s poetry (edited to add – please see Pam Munoz-Ryan’s correction in the comments – these lines of poetry were written by her, not Pablo Neruda.). These drawings are full of wonder, but also very evocative of Neftalí’s feelings in that moment – whether that is fear of his father looming up above the sea, sadness and protectiveness of a hurt swan, or the excitement of traveling and making new friends. Sís’ drawings do with ink lines what Neruda’s poetry does with words – they crystallize feelings and experiences down to their essence, conveying them in briefly but completely. They complement the story, and the poetry, beautifully. Asking Peter Sís to turn Pablo Neruda’s imagination into visual form was a stroke of genius, and one that will give young readers an additional window into the world of his words.