Dreaming in Verse

The Dreamer
By Pam Muñoz Ryan
Illustrated by Peter Sís
(Scholastic Press, New York, 2010, $17.99)

How do you separate a writer from his words? Where you do draw the line between biography and novel, prose and poetry? In The Dreamer, a fictionalized biography of Chilean poet Pablo Neruda, Pam Muñoz Ryan explores magical and often painful Neruda’s childhood. Peter Sis’s delicate green line drawings capture the poet’s wonderful daydreams and dashed hopes.

Neruda, born Neftalí Reyes, begins life with a sickly body, a vivid imagination, and an overbearing, ambitious father. Together, these three elements nearly prove damning for the young boy. His father, anxious for Neftalí to succeed in medicine or business, discourages – sometimes violently – his son’s interest in writing. He forces Neftalí to swim in strong ocean waters for prescribed periods and rarely shows fondness him affection. Hungry for warmth and understanding, Neftalí is disappointed again and again. But a few kind adults, including a left-leaning journalist uncle, inhabit the young poet’s universe. Slowly, Neftalí accepts that he will never feel close to his father. He pursues his aspirations, develops a strong social conscience, and safeguards the dream world that sustains him.

Fiction about real people often risks dryness and sensationalism. With The Dreamer, Pam Muñoz Ryan transcends the usual constraints of imagined biographies, weaving a lyrical coming-of-age story. Her approach is a fitting and uplifting tribute to Neruda’s life and verse.

Dorothy A. Dahm

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