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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Dreamer–More Middle Muddle

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. :))

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I don’t really know where to ask a question on this blog, but since Nina has mentioned the lack of credit for a translator in the back matter of DREAMER, maybe this is my opportunity. I notice this year in particular, the constant presence and expansion of back matter in fiction titles – author’s notes, afterwords, information, photos, etc. Does the Newbery committee evaluate these aspects of the book as integral to the work? Is it just a question like design as to whether they detract? For instance, I found the photo of the two boys at the back of TURTLE IN PARADISE a detraction precisely because the characters in the story came so vividly to life for me. And the author’s message at the end of BAMBOO PEOPLE, which I really was drawn into, almost said that it was written for a didactic purpose, even though I would not have evaluated the story alone as didactic. In DREAMER, I would have preferred that Neruda’s poetry had been used within the chapters rather than appended. Why can’t fiction books stand on their own? Do we need to understand why the author did what s/he did? Sorry to veer, but I’d really like to know whether committees evaluate everything between the boards or primarily the pages with the actual fiction story.

  2. Blakeney, I’m fascinated by this issue right now. My feeling is that there is a continuum from nonfiction of the encyclopedic sort all the way to the farthest reaches of fiction. (Did a graphic of this for this post: with a line in the middle separating the two. Yet there are books that are right on that line, on one side or the other. And it seems to me the books that end up on the fictional side, books that have real people and real events are enhanced by something from the author helping to explain some of what Nina is asking about. My students like to know what is real and what is not in such cases. Christopher Paul Curtis’s author’s note for ELIJAH OF BUXTON explaining the history of Buxton, for example, seems to me to be a fascinating and a worthwhile part of the book. Yes the book stood alone as a terrific work of historical fiction, but knowing the history behind it seems a worthwhile thing to include as well.

    I think it comes down to how these books end up being read. That is, must we have a purely aesthetic experience or can’t reading such books also be somewhat informational? Or can it be somewhat the former and somewhat the latter? Or vice versa? There are those who will read THE DREAMER purely aesthetically as they do KEEPER, but others may read it a bit more for information as well. If the latter, I guess I do feel such a book is enhanced by some information of the sort Nina mentions in the back.

  3. Heh. Blakeney, that’s my particular crusade, and I’ve made a couple of “enemies” talking about it. I wrote a blog post on the subject a year ago:

    I was glad One Crazy Summer was free of all the extraneous matter that could have been there–as you say, it stands on its own.

  4. One Crazy Summer has an author’s note.

  5. 1. Nina, why do you say that Ryan was “clearly trying to create a fiction”? I don’t think that’s true. I think Ryan was trying to tell the story of Neruda’s childhood in a kid-friendly way. Show kids of today the struggles he faced and how he overcame them. Not create a fiction and if anything, quite the opposite. Do you mean that instead of laying out the facts of Neruda’s life in an informational way, she’s trying to tell his story? Historical fiction? Is that what you mean?

    I know that technically, this could be classified as Historical Fiction, but I personally, have a hard time doing that. Typically in historical fiction books, the principal characters tend to be fictitious whereas the supporting characters and setting tend to be the historically true part of the story. In THE DREAMER, our main character is Pablo Neruda and Ryan pulled much of the story from his actual memoirs. So I know that she took some liberties in structuring her plot and telling his story but I have difficulty labeling this book squarely as Historical Fiction being that she was actually trying to tell his story as accurately as possible.

    And I think your complaints of the plot and “wanting more” simply because this was fiction are a little persnickety and unfair. You seem to be holding this book and this plot up against other “fiction” work and I don’t think the comparison is fair when actually, much of this book is nonfiction. It’s just told in a poetic way. You tell us often that the committee is to judge work on what it is, not on what its not. I don’t know if you’re doing that accurately in this case.

    2. Very rarely do I read author’s notes or afterwards in books. I don’t know why. I also don’t think kids generally pay them much attention either. Sure some do occasionally, depending on the book or topic, but most, on average, do not.

    Personally, I wish they could be ignored when discussing the Newbery altogether. Maybe they are not taken into consideration as much as I’m generalizing, but I just think it’s unfair to alter your take on a story based on what you wanted in an author’s note and what the author didn’t give you in his or her author’s note.

    From what I understand, when awarding the Newbery Medal, the committee is judging an author’s work, not their process. So I find it a little unsettling that it sounds like some people are letting their feelings about the author’s work be impacted by their explanation or lack of explanation of their work. I think the story needs to be judged on itself. Otherwise heck, why not invite all the authors of all the final books up for discussion to the meeting and let them all explain away!!!

    I read Wendy’s post and comments and loved what Ellen Klages had to say:

    “I’ve always thought that, as a writer, it’s not my job to give people answers, but to get them interested and engaged enough to want to ask more questions.”

    Personally, I would prefer it if any feelings or judgments made on a book based on an author’s note, be stricken from the record when discussing the Newbery.

  6. Take it back — One Crazy Summer has shortly over a page of acknowledgments with a very brief sentence on her research and a very powerful two explaining why she wrote the book.

  7. Nina Lindsay says:

    Mr. H, I said “clearly trying to create a fiction” because the Author’s Note begins “The Dreamer is a work of fiction based on the events of Pablo Neruda’s childhood.”

    Regarding end matter…the committee really must read the whole package. I wouldn’t evaluate the end matter here as part of the literary body of the work, but I would consider the content of it part of her “presentation” and “interpretation.”

  8. Monica, One Crazy Summer doesn’t have that kind of author’s note–just a short-ish acknowledgments section. She mentions one source (not that I have a problem with listing sources) and mentions briefly that she wrote it for the children. She doesn’t include details of her process, personal experiences, or motivation; nor is there a lot of background about the Sixties, Oakland, or the Black Panthers.

  9. (Sorry, Monica, simulpost)

    Lots of historical fiction is a fictionalized version of a real life–Laura Ingalls Wilder, for instance. (Of course, lots of biography, especially mid-century, was ALSO a fictionalized version of a real life… it gets messy in there.)

  10. Okay. Thanks. As I said, I rarely look at the author’s notes in books so I must’ve missed that.

    I still think you’re unfairly expecting too much. Yes, Ryan did not live in Neruda’s shoes. So some liberties must be taken when telling his story. That’s where the “fiction” comes into play. But for the most part, as far as I understand, the majority of the events in the story actually happened. It sounds as if you’re holding it against the story that Ryan didn’t fictionalize enough . . . I don’t think that’s a fair argument.

    As for plot development, character delineation, and tension . . . I think it’s all there. I agree with you that most people’s lives are not driven by one compelling plot point. But I think the domineering father gives this story all the legs and tension it needs. I love the way that timid little Neftali grows throughout the book (literally) and rises up against his father to make a life for himself. There’s a scene at a beach that’s beautifully written where his anger rises up inside him (but I don’t have a copy of the book at the moment).

    As for tension, always worrying how the father was going to react to Neftali’s ways was kind of a constant tension for me as a reader and I remember a scene involving a swan that was rather graphic and heartwrenching.

    I know I’m not a very convincing arguer, but I just really, really liked this book. In the grand scheme of things, I just think it’s a “bigger deal” than ONE CRAZY SUMMER or KEEPER. But that’s my gut.

  11. Nina Lindsay says:

    Mr. H, I didn’t say that I expected fictionalizing. But as it is fiction, I did expect some narrative tension, either in plot or character, that I didn’t find. I recognize that this is difficult to achieve when you structure the story around real-life episodes, as she did. But–except for the afterword–this book does *not* present itself as a book about Neruda. I actually never read end matter or intros myself until after I’ve read the book. I don’t even read the flap copy. So when I read this book for the first time, I didn’t know it was based on Neruda’s childhood. I certainly noticed the “Neruda-like” poetry in the text (more about that later), but not until the final final chapters and the afterword did I realize what this book was about. And I had a really hard time with it that first read. I started it 3 or 4 times and found little to compel me, and then when I sat down promising myself to finish, I simply could not keep interest or sense of direction. I had no idea where it was going, or why I was going on that journey as a reader.

    After reading the end matter, the whole story changed. But, based on your argument, that shouldn’t make the difference, right?

    Blakeney said it would have been nicer to have Neruda’s real poetry through the text, rather than Ryan’s simulation of it. I did find Ryan’s Neruda-like poetry to be a little limited in scope, and so a pale comparison, BUT very nice for a simulation, and for her audience. And if she’d included the real poetry, then her work would *have* to stand as “fictionalized biography” rather than “fiction based on memoir,”…right? I just think it was very deliberate, and appropriate for the package.

  12. Jonathan Hunt says:

    I think I liked this one better than Nina, but I’m not necessarily convinced that it’s a Medal caliber book either. Could make a nice honor book, though. I need to reread it, but I may not be able to get my hands on a copy very soon. We’ll see.

    In addition to THE DREAMER, there are several high profile fictionalizations this year. First, HEART OF A SAMURAI is based on the story of a Japanese teenager from the 1800s. Some of you may remember the story from Rhoda Blumberg’s book, SHIPWRECKED, or Emily Arnold Mccully’s, MANJIRO. Second, ZORA AND ME is loosely based on the childhood of Zora Neale Hurston. Third, WICKED GIRLS is a verse novel of the Salem Witch Trials. And fourth, BORROWED NAMES is another verse novel/poetry collection about three famous mothers–Laura Ingalls Wilder, Madame C.J. Walker, and Marie Curie–and their daughters. These latter two are probably too old for the comfort level of many committee members, but they offer a small pool of books with which to compare and contrast the fictionalization in THE DREAMER.

    Scattered thoughts about notes . . . I strongly dislike notes and acknowledgements in fiction. I don’t think most children actually read them. And I think it’s like reading a great fantasy novel, coming to the end, and reading, “It was all a dream.” There can be something demystifying about notes. Don’t mind reading more on an author’s website, however . . . They are definitely fair game for the committee, but I think they do not play a significant role in the evaluation. In spite of my own personal preference, I can’t think of a book that I would take out of contention over an author’s note or acknowledgement . . . Unlike Nina, I read the jacket copy and all of the end matter first . . . One thing that’s interesting about THE DREAMER is that the main text is written with huge font and generous line spacing, and then the afterword shifts gears: small font, cramped spacing . . . Nina, I’m not sure why the lack of a translator makes it bad. Would you care to explain? Can anyone verify that there is no translator credited in the finished copy of the book? Is it possible that Ryan translated it herself? Possible, but improbable?

  13. Sources for Neruda’s poetry and odes, including translator credits, are in the back notes.

  14. Hmm…I don’t get why it is not okay to have an author note IN THE BOOK, but okay for the information to be SOMEWHERE ELSE. Why is it okay for the stuff to be on an website, but not in the book? I just took a look at THE WITCH OF BLACKBIRD POND and was surprised to see a very tiny author note in the back explaining what was real and what was not. It was clearly and quietly in the back for those who wanted it. I didn’t remember it being there because I never read it. Like many kids I was satisfied after reading the story and needed nothing more. I was in the magic of the story and it wasn’t broken by that author note — because I didn’t read it. But others have written here and elsewhere that even as kids they loved author notes for many different reasons.

  15. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Monica, it *is* okay. I just don’t like it. If I thought it was grounded in anything other than a simple preference, then I would be arguing this point, rather than merely expressing my opinion. 🙂

  16. Nina Lindsay says:

    Yikes. My mistake. I see now how it works. There is a title given at the bottom of each poem, and that refers to the source.

    I’ll fix this in my post. What a crude mistake. But I’m glad to see it. It matters, Jonathan, because since she takes the step of showing what his real poetry is like, i.e., revelaing the “fact” behind the “fiction,” it’s important to acknowledge that these “real’ peoms *still* aren’t the real poems, they’re translations. Translations of Neruda (of anyone!) can vary widely. And since she places such an emphasis throughout the story on the important of words themselves, and the sounds of words, I think it’s important for readers to know how to find the REAL real words.

    I’d still have preferred to have seen “translated by” at the bottom of each poem to make this obvious, but this’ll do.

  17. I think lengthy author’s notes and backmatter often take away from the effectiveness of the novel. Having that information in another context, like a website or an author’s autobiography, supplies distance; the book still stands alone. It’s not so different from looking up further background material in nonfiction books on the subject, or the Internet. I mention in my blog post linked above why I thought The Rock and the River was specifically lessened by its author’s note. And I reference the Witch of Blackbird Pond note, too. The key there for me is that it doesn’t try to teach or explain anything. There’s no need.

    Jonathan, what you mention about the difference in text size and font (and, I’d add, style and mood) between the main text of The Dreamer and its author’s note bothered me. I mentioned it in my original comment about the book, somewhere earlier in the fall. The change made me feel the note was written for parents and teachers, not the young audience, which I find irritating, but most people did not seem to agree with me.

  18. In terms of backmatter, I think this is one of those instances where book design comes into play. The book ending on the left-hand page and the backmatter starting immediately on the right-hand page I find very distracting; I’m in the momentum of reading, and just when I want to take a breath, stop the momentum, and absorb, there’s more text–often with a radically different feel–to draw my eye. It messes with the experience of saying, “okay, I’m done.” But if there’s a blank page, or a page of illustration, or something like that to physically separate the book from the backmatter, I find it much less distracting; I can stop my momentum, take my moment to breathe–and *then* turn the page and read on, with my brain in a different mode. I don’t know if that’s just me, though.

    (I don’t have The Dreamer in front of me, so I’m not sure how exactly it’s paged in that book.)

  19. I think back to Number the Stars which contained in the “afterword” the fascinating information about how they made a mix of blood and cocaine to attract the dogs and dull their sense of smell when the Nazis conducted searches of the boats. That backmatter begins with the question asking about what is true and what isn’t in the book. I find that kind of inclusion helpful and interesting (it does begin on the page facing the end of the story however). An example from this year that bothered me was the end of Bamboo People. There is a very appropriate, to me, not about the history of Burma and the conflicts there. The next section of notes (there are three separate sections in the backmatter – I am sorry I do not have a copy in front of me) finishes with statements about hoping the reader has connected with or empathized with Chiko and Tu Reh and if you care and want to do something or are a teacher and want a lesson plan, you can go to a related website. While the story itself had a point of view on war and actions against ethnic minorities, this note just screams didactic at me. It also makes me feel that I am being told how I should respond to the story, which is a bit condescending. This is only one example, and I was very absorbed in this book and thought it had distinguished features.

    I appreciate everyone’s comments on this issue. Thanks.

  20. I am only able to zip in and out of these discussions, so I may have missed important bits. But just wanted to say:
    –Plot does not have to be linear. A collage of scenes is a perfectly legitimate way to tell a story.
    –I squirm when fiction is evaluated by its ‘accuracy’, by its ‘research’, by anything which says it must perfectly mirror the ‘real’ world. To my mind, each work of fiction need only adhere to its own rules, its own geography, its own vision.
    –I don’t appreciate ‘notes’ or ‘afterwards’ or ‘research’ in works of fiction. Let the story stand on its own. I understand why teachers or librarians might appreciate those notes, but the trend toward them dismays me. To me they say, ‘Use this book in a classroom.’ If you’re writing a textbook, fine. If you’re writing a novel, write a novel.

  21. I like notes, afternotes, research notes, whatever you want to call them, for historical fiction, and always have. They’re not absolutely necessary to my enjoyment, but when I want to find out more – and if it’s good historical fiction, I do want to find out more – it’s nice to know what sources the author used. And then when I go and find those sources (and, if I get really hooked – thank you, Rosemary Sutcliff, for my fixation on Claverhouse – other sources than those the author used) I love the connections that I can make. “Oh, *that’s* where that came from!” Constance Lindsay Skinner’s BECKY LANDERS: FRONTIER WARRIOR sent me in search of Dagniaux De Quindre. I wish she had provided a few more sources, because I couldn’t find much, though I did end up e-mailing a descendent of his who was delighted to learn of a book featuring his ancestor.

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