I don’t know how I missed this book when it first came out, but when I saw it on Horn Book’s list of Best of 2010, I grabbed it. Pablo Neruda is one of my favorite poets, so it was fascinating to read this fictionalized account of his childhood. It’s amazing that so dreamy and introspective a child could withstand the relentless bullying of his father and grow up to be one of the most sensitive poets the world has ever known.
I scarcely knew, by myself, that I existed,
that I’d be able to be, and go on being.
I was afraid of that, of life itself.
I didn’t want to be seen,
I didn’t want my existence to be known.
I became pallid, thin, and absentminded.
I didn’t want to speak so that nobody
would recognize my voice. I didn’t want
to see so that nobody would see me.
Walking, I pressed myself against the wall
like a shadow slipping away.
Neftali Reyes grew up in the small town of Temuco, Chile. His father was an important man who completely dominated his family. Neftali was weak and sickly, and always collecting things –oddly shaped stones, twigs, and even words he liked the sound of, which he wrote on scraps of paper and kept in a drawer. Neftali’s older brother Rodolfo wanted to be a singer, but their father considered any occupation other than businessman or doctor to be a waste of time. He forbid Rodolfo to sing, and even though Rodolfo wasn’t able to stand up for himself, he did try to help Neftali pursue his interests and avoid their father’s wrath. His stepmother and younger sister Laurita provided some much-needed love and affection in Neftali’s life. When his father discovered something Neftali had written and published in the university newspaper, he threw all of the notebooks containing Neftali’s life writings out his bedroom window and then set them on fire. Neftali knew that if he were going to keep writing, he would have to write under another name so his father wouldn’t find out. So he became Pablo Neruda. Ryan’s The Dreamer shows how Neftali’s wonder at the natural world, and his reverence for the beauty of the land and creatures of Chile sustain him through a bleak childhood, and save him from despair. Review by Stacy Church
Winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Author Award