THE DREAMER adds an interesting angle into the Middle Muddle…what to do with fiction based on biography?
I think Ryan achieves excellence in character and setting through her style…using imagery and sound with an exagerrated clarity intended to mimic the poetry of Neruda. Neftali and his family, and his home, certainly come alive for me in a distinguished way. But after that, I’m not quite sure what to do with this book. As fiction, I expect it to have excellence in plot…but there is little plot here; rather, there are episodes that–we learn in the afterword–are based on Neruda’s memoirs. This is the trap that bio-pic movies fall into…there is no compelling plot in most peoples’ lives. Reality doesn’t always make for good story. Still, as Ryan was clearly trying to create a fiction, I’d have hoped for a little more in the way of plot or character development and tension.
Interpretation of theme or concept. I do think that Ryan comes remarkably close in succeeding what may be an impossible task. I do get the sense, in her story, of the development of a poet, and I think that’s what she’s trying to do. I wonder how well it works for her audience. Earlier some of you were mentioning using this in class–can you share?
There are a number of things that niggle at me throughout this book. There’s a very occasional use of Spanish throughout, and I can’t find rhyme or reason for where/why Ryan chooses to use it. It gets especially confusing to me when Neftali is thinking about particular words…if Ryan was going to use some actual Spanish, then why not on page 21 as he thinks about the rhythm of the word “locomotive”? Why are the words that Neftali writes out, visually, in English on p. 22, in Spanish on p. 98, and then in English on p. 236? There are a handful of plot elements that strained my belief, and I’d be curious to follow up on Ryan’s research to see if the disbelief originates with her, or is part of Neruda’s memoirs (the swan shows no resistance at being picked up? Neftali “masters” the printing press in 2 months?). Finally, I have to check the final edition to see if this is actually the case since I’m working from the ARC, but I found it stupefying that no translator is given for the selections of Neruda’s actually poetry at the end. (I personally wish we’d been able to see it in two languages, but I think this is one of those things that it “would have been better” with, but isn’t necessarily bad without. Lack of translator, though, makes it “bad.”) [Dec 2 update: I am completely WRONG about the translator issue. Please see comments.]
If it’s not already clear, this is not in my top 5. But I still think it contributes an important element to the Newbery discussion, and has something in it that made me want to discuss it more than, say, WHAT HAPPENED ON FOX STREET or TURTLE IN PARADISE (both of which I think are certainly among the “best” books of the year, but just don’t completely climb the Newbery scale). And that’s a measure of something that is “distinguished.” Recall, that this is what the award is for…
The Medal shall be awarded annually to the author of the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children published by an American publisher in the United States in English during the preceding year.
“Distinguished” is defined as:
• Marked by eminence and distinction; noted for significant achievement.
• Marked by excellence in quality.
• Marked by conspicuous excellence or eminence.
• Individually distinct
I struggle with those definitions every year we do this. They don’t actually seem to mean much on their own. But once I start looking at a particluar book, and looking at those definitions (I like to keep them on my bookmark), I get the sense that either the book has it, or it doesn’t. And it shows up in different ways for different books. With ONE CRAZY SUMMER, I see “excellence in quality” in the phenomenally strong and complex character development. With THE DREAMER, I see “individually distinct.” Ryan has set herself a remarkably difficult task, and has done at least a very good job of achieving it. If I felt wholly that she’d done it, I’d also see “conspicious excellence….significant achievement,” but at this point I’d have to be convinced.
(If I recall, I had similar reservations about THE UNDERNEATH. )