Subscribe to SLJ
Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Dreamer

When our book club here at Hanshaw Middle School finished reading ESPERANZA RISING, I shared the fact that Pam Munoz Ryan had a new book out, THE DREAMER, a fictionalized childhood biography of Pablo Neruda.  When our assistant principal heard that, she immediately asked to borrow it, saying, “It gives me chills just to think about it.”

My wife also adores Pablo Neruda, especially his love poetry.  She’s just crazy about it.  Who is Pablo Neruda, then, that he can inspire such passion and feeling about his work?

Well, Ryan has skillfully distilled his essence–what forces shaped him and gave birth to some of the best poetry of the twentieth century–into a very appealing and accessible format for children, no mean feat considering that Neruda’s actual work is more likely to be appreciated by adults.

THE DREAMER has already won a Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Award, and will almost surely bring Ryan her second Pura Belpre Medal, but the big question is whether it will bring her much deserved Newbery recognition.  Personally, I’m not sure that it’s the Medal winner, but I think it would make a fine, fine Honor book.  What do you think?

Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I thought it was pretty good, and fairly daring, but I don’t think it’s going to be one of the five (or whatever) best this year. It isn’t the kind of book that appeals to me–I thought it self-consciously “artsy”, but that’s a value judgment–and of course that’s going to color my reading of it. But when I looked at it with the Newbery criteria in mind, the main point that hit for me is that the plot isn’t compellingly presented. There’s a lot of focus on theme and language, and I think the plot suffers.

    The author’s note at the end seemed to be written for parents and teachers, not child readers, and that irritated me–it made me feel as if Ryan herself didn’t believe in the book as one for children to read and discover on their own.

  2. I would bet on an Honor, but not be surprised in the least if The Dreamer nabbed the gold. Of the books discussed so far, are there many that hold up as well under the criteria?

    The Dreamer is a beautiful, surreal, appropriately dreamy work. Ryan’s use of language, the imagery, the unfolding of Neftali’s inner and outer worlds- I think it does justice under interpretation of theme (unique, brilliantly conceived idea to depict a fictional history of Neruda), delineation of characters and setting (well-developed, rich details), appropriateness of style (you said it best above- Ryan has “skillfully distilled his essence.”)

    My only slight reservation is on the ever-controversial child appeal issue. This is a very special book that requires a very special child reader.

  3. Wendy, good point on the plot. I agree it’s the language and style that really shines here. I believe that’s why it’s a tough sell to most (but not all) child readers.

    But I have to disagree with you on Ryan’s tone and intention for the author’s note. I thought it showed great respect for the intelligence of that child reader who does love this book and want to know more. We are seeing more and more of this type of great, detailed backmatter in non-fiction. I was so surprised and delighted to find this attention in a work of fiction for children. Yes- adults, esp. teachers and librarians, will enjoy and use this. But, I am positive, there are children (again, perhaps not hordes) who will be inspired by Ryan’s Neftali and the backmatter will give them a window into another world of literature they might otherwise never have experienced. For that, I think Ryan deserves a lot of credit.

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    In the acknowledgements, Ryan thanks Jon Muth for first telling her the story of the hole in the fence, and, of course, this book is somewhat reminiscent of the philosophical work of Muth, namely THE THREE QUESTIONS and ZEN SHORTS. I remember many people questioning whether the latter actually had any child appeal. How wrong they were! Does anybody actually have child readers for THE DREAMER? My copy is obviously with the assistant principal. 😉

  5. I’ve just began handing this out to my Newbery club kids. I had one girl read it overnight. She came back with a very positive review. We will be discussing it in two weeks with the entire group, along with THE WATER SEEKER. Two very different books, but both deal with abusive parents. Does anyone know if there is a collection Neruda’s poems that have been put together for children? I also think it stands a huge change of making the honor cut this year. I also think it will be deserving. I hope to be proved wrong about my pessimism regarding kid appeal.

  6. I actually think there’s a lot in THE DREAMER that would appeal to kids. The way Neftali slips in and out of daydreams, the way he’s constantly berated for wanting to write and follow his dreams, I think these are all themes that will speak pretty loudly to children! Plus, the language is so unique and vivid . . . I think that teachers, librarians, and parents may have to work a little bit to get this into kids’ hands (as it’s not the type of book that would typically be read widely) but I think that when in their hands, many kids would actually enjoy it and appreciate it!

  7. Wendy: “The author’s note at the end seemed to be written for parents and teachers, not child readers, and that irritated me–it made me feel as if Ryan herself didn’t believe in the book as one for children to read and discover on their own.”

    I didn’t realize that author’s notes had to be written for children? Maybe I just don’t pay enough attention to them! Are most author’s notes written with the child reader in mind? Serious question. Sometimes I read them (if I’m truly interested in the backstory or author), sometimes I don’t.

    I surely wouldn’t hold a poorly executed author’s note against a book though in discussion for the Newbery . . . maybe I’m in a minority.

  8. I loved this. I loved the way her prose had echoes of Neruda’s poetry. And I did think the plot was compelling, with him hiding things from his father.

    Though I think the book is even more distinguished if you can consider the illustrations along with it. (Like the Boston Globe/Horn Book Awards.) The two work together so beautifully.

    I have checked out a book of Pablo Neruda’s poetry in response to this book.

  9. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Just got back from our book club meeting–and I have found a reader for THE DREAMER. I have a seventh grader whose favorite poet is Pablo Neruda. Just goes to show you can make assumptions. It’ll probably be another week or so before I can share his response. Stay tuned.

  10. Not being familiar with Neruda’s work, I can’t answer my own question: But are there any instances in the book where Neruda’s words are used instead of Ryan’s . . . creating controversy in discussing and interpreting “original work” as defined by Newbery criteria?

    I don’t have a copy of the book in front of me and I don’t know Neruda’s work. But I LOVED the book and have it as my top choice for the Newbery right now! If the “interpretation of concept or theme” is not distinguished, I don’t know what is. And echoing Sondy’s thoughts about plot, there was plenty of suspense surrounding Neftali and his father to hook young readers (Is he going to be caught? Is he going to get in trouble?)

  11. I thought this was a case of beautiful bookmaking. I was disappointed to discover that the lines of poetry used through the book were not Neruda’s. I also wondered about a mismatch between theme and audience. Neftali is depicted through the early part of the book as a child, yet the struggle for identity theme seems more suited for adolescents.

  12. I just finished this one last night, and at first I felt luke-warm about both the plot and the tone – at times the poetic language felt a little forced. I was a little surprised at how much I’d warmed up to the story by the end – especially since I read most of it in one go (it’s deceptively thick!) I’m thinking that you have to be in the right frame of mind, much like reading a poem – if you’re not in the mood to be introspective or daydream, sometimes a poem can lose its magic.

    I agree that the daydreaming will appeal to kids – maybe not all, but enough to give it child appeal. My copy has checked out 7 times since April, but I don’t know if those were adults or children since I’m at a public library.

    In terms of the artwork – while I loved it, I think you could take it away and still have an effective story. Unless someone comes up with a convincing argument otherwise, this might be one I root for.

  13. The question isn’t whether the plot itself is compelling, but whether it’s presented in a compelling manner. I thought the plot got lost in the poetic language, and the book could have been organized in a more interesting, clearer way.

  14. K. Florence says:

    I think this is a special book and creates special readers out of special reading experiences. I had the honor of having my principal read the book aloud to my 5th grade class last November with a preview copy. They loved it. They identified with Neftali in ways they don’t connect with thin, fanciful characters. My students laughed and cried and couldn’t wait for each new day. We had rich discussions. They were shocked at his father, and we discussed whether Neftali would have become such a great writer, without the resistance of his father. They loved Neftali’s spirit and his way with much so that we did an inquiry into Neruda and his poetry. We combined that with our genre study of poetry and used Ms. Ryan’s poetry and Neruda’s poetry as mentors for our own. The results were astounding, but could never have been possible without the journey we took with Neftali in the pages of The Dreamer. I love it and it is my top pick for the Newbery. I will use it again as read aloud or a small group literature circle.

    As for the Author’s Note…why is that for adults? That was one of our favorite parts. We needed it to answer all the questions we had when we finished. We referred back to it, and I found kids reading it on their own. It helped us love the stories even more. Thank you, Pam Ryan, for sharing this story with us.

    Here are a couple of poems by my 5th graders.


    I want to bask in the sun
    That fabricates warmth
    and makes me yawn,
    The lemon-juice sky
    puts a scrunch
    on my face,
    I want to smell the aroma of a
    as I sit in the
    valley below.

    Ode to the Back-Pack

    It sits there
    On the door handle
    To be put
    On her shoulder,
    To have books
    Taken out and in,
    Of its wide-Oopen mouth,
    To see her homework,
    And check it for itself
    To be unzipped,
    And breathe the fresh air,
    Hear the laughter
    Of the screaming, giggling, silly children,
    Smell the smell
    Of the lead of the pencil,
    Of the heavy breathing workers,
    Writing and reading
    All day long
    See the learning statues
    Talking, writing, reading,
    Learning, listening.
    It sits there
    In her cubby
    To be filled again
    With new and old things,
    Crumbled and stiff things,
    Colorful and dull things,
    To add up the clues
    She puts in the mouth of the back-pack,
    And guess what she did that day.
    Then it’s taken home
    With her
    On her shoulder
    All the way

  15. I am reading it to my third graders right now and they seem to be enjoying it. I’ve noticed that they especially like the places where Neftali goes into his imagination, they always point them out. I don’t know if there’s a collection of Neruda’s poetry specifically for children, but after first reading The Dreamer last spring, I found The Book of Questions and had my class do an activity where they read and then presented some of those poems, which went really well.

  16. I had to look back at the author’s note to see specifically what I found bothersome and why I felt it was written for the parent or teacher and not the child. (This is NOT, of course, to say that children can’t or won’t or shouldn’t read the author’s note.) I found it jarring in tone and style compared to the text. One of the strengths of this book is that it seems designed to speak to a wide range of ages and reading levels. The language is simple enough to be readable for intermediate readers; the concepts are complex enough to keep it interesting for more advanced readers/thinkers. The author’s note is in higher-level academic language and the typeface is about half the size of that in the text. Why not have the author’s note accessible to all as well?

    I don’t think this is a particularly important criticism, though.

  17. I read the first 50 pages this weekend (and then it got bumped by something that drew me in more…) and agree with those who found the poetic language forced and strangely flat. There was tension between the characters, but I had no emotional connection to any of them, and didn’t like any of them.

    I also found that both the bits of verse and the illustrations detracted from my reading experience. They distracted me and made me impatient, rather than deepening my understanding or appreciation. (And we *can* take illustrations into account if they render the book less effective.)

    Maybe these elements, and the writing, would have grown on me if I’d made myself keep reading (and I may yet return to it), but nothing made me want to keep reading, other than the prospect of discussing it with ya’ll.

Speak Your Mind