The Pura Belpré Awards turns 20 this year! The milestone will be marked on Sunday, June 26, from 1:00-3:00 p.m. during the 2016 ALA Annual Conference in Orlando, FL. According to the award’s site, the celebration will feature speeches by the 2016 Pura Belpré award-winning authors and illustrators, book signings, light snacks, and entertainment. The event will also feature a silent auction of original artwork by Belpré award-winning illustrators, sales of the new commemorative book The Pura Belpré Award: Twenty Years of Outstanding Latino Children’s Literature, and a presentation by keynote speaker Carmen Agra Deedy
Leading up to the event, we will be highlighting the winners of the narrative and illustration awards. Today’s spotlight is on The Dreamer by Pam Muñoz Ryan, winner of the 2011 Pura Belpré Narrative Award. We have already highlighted Esperanza Rising, which won the 2002 Narrative Award.
Reviewed by Cecilia Cackley
DESCRIPTION (from Goodreads): Neftali finds beauty and wonder everywhere: in the oily colors of mud puddles; a lost glove, sailing on the wind; the music of birds and language. He loves to collect treasures, daydream, and write–pastimes his authoritarian father thinks are for fools. Against all odds, Neftali prevails against his father’s cruelty and his own crippling shyness to become one of the most widely read poets in the world, Pablo Neruda. This moving story about the birth of an artist is also a celebration of childhood, imagination, and the strength of the creative spirit.
MY TWO CENTS: As an object, The Dreamer has to be one of the most beautiful books ever created. Every detail—the silver on the cover, the words printed in green, the generous white space on each page and the precise, delicate illustrations by Peter Sís—combine to create a stunning work of art, even before you begin reading. I knew the name Pablo Neruda before I read this book, but other than a few poems from Twenty Love Poems and a Song of Despair, I was not all that familiar with the Chilean poet’s life and work. This book is a fantastic introduction. Ryan is clear in her author’s note that The Dreamer is a work of fiction, and yet it seems perfectly plausible that Neftalí, the fictional main character (Neruda was born Neftalí Reyes and created his pen name as a young man), grew up to be the famous poet whose poems are included at the end of the text.
The Dreamer engages all the senses, as Ryan uses onomatopoeia and changing text size to indicate sound and her lush descriptions bring Neftalí and his family to life. Sís alternates between tiny spot drawings that require close scrutiny and sweeping spreads that go right to the edge of the page. The importance that nature holds for Neftalí is reflected in the chapter titles: Rain, Mud, Tree. Some of the most poignant moments come when Neftalí is engaging with the natural world, such as when he hears the chucao bird in the forest and when he tries his best to save a hurt swan in the lagoon. These moments of calm and curiosity are contrasted with his more difficult interactions with people, such as when he stutters to his father and endures abuse from the bully Guillermo. Yet as Neftalí gets older, he finds allies like his Uncle Orlando and his little sister Laurita and eventually has the strength to find ways around his father’s demand that he stop writing poetry. Each chapter ends with an open-ended question, in the same spirit as Neruda’s own question poems that encourages the reader to consider the characters and their choices and actions. Is fire born of words? Or are words born of fire? Where is the heaven of lost stories?
Neruda is said to be the most widely translated and well-known poet, not just in Latin-America but throughout the entire world. With this richly imagined childhood, Ryan celebrates the Latino cultural experience of Neruda and his work. Although fictional, The Dreamer captures Neruda’s spirit of wonder, curiosity and love for the world and inspires young readers to look at their surroundings with a poet’s eyes.
TEACHING TIPS: The Dreamer was published when I was still teaching third grade. I read it aloud to my students, so I can say with confidence that it is a wonderful book to share as a class! This book makes a great read-aloud, as the descriptions and slow pace of the story mean it works better for some readers broken up into smaller pieces. April is Poetry Month, a perfect time to share The Dreamer with students. I used it as the basis for two different poetry lessons, one about Neruda’s odes to objects and one using his Book of Questions poems. The episode from the book with the toy sheep (128-132) is a nice introduction to the importance Neruda placed on everyday objects and several of his odes are reproduced at the end of the book. Students can read these and other odes (or excerpts, as some of them are long) and then either individually or in small groups, write their own odes to objects that they feel are important.
With the question poems, I had students discuss them in small groups and then create a dramatic presentation of their poem in any way they chose. If you want to share more of Neruda’s objects with a class, the Fundación Pablo Neruda in Chile has photos of his houses online to look at. For younger students, Monica Brown’s picture book biography Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is another good resource for separating fact from fiction. It might be a good idea to begin with Brown’s book as a way of introducing students to Neruda and giving them an overview of his life before starting The Dreamer.
Vocabulary is another good activity for this book and students can find new words or make lists of words they think are especially rich and vivid. The setting of Chile, possibly an unfamiliar country to students, is also an opportunity to make geography connections and students could find Temuco, Puerto Saavedra and Santiago de Chile on a map or GoogleEarth.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Pam Muñoz Ryan, a New York Times Bestselling author, has written over forty books, including the novels Esperanza Rising, Becoming Naomi León, Riding Freedom, Paint the Wind, The Dreamer, and Echo. She is the author recipient of the National Education Association’s Civil and Human Rights Award, the Virginia Hamilton Literary Award for Multicultural Literature, the Newbery Honor for Children’s Literature, and is twice the recipient of the Pura Belpré Medal and the Willa Cather Award.
Other selected honors include the PEN USA Award, the Américas Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor, and the Orbis Pictus Award. She was born and raised in Bakersfield, California, (formerly Pam Bell) holds a bachelor’s and master’s degree from San Diego State University and lives near San Diego with her family.
Educator Guide from Vamos a Leer blog: https://teachinglatinamericathroughliterature.wordpress.com/october-2012-the-dreamer/
BookPage interview: https://bookpage.com/interviews/8572-pam-munoz-ryan#.VvNk4KsbRoM
Language Arts Journal of Michigan article: http://scholarworks.gvsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1079&context=lajm
Cecilia Cackley is a performing artist and children’s bookseller based in Washington DC where she creates puppet theater for adults and teaches playwriting and creative drama to children. Her bilingual children’s plays have been produced by GALA Hispanic Theatre and her interests in bilingual education, literacy, and immigrant advocacy all tend to find their way into her theatrical work. You can find more of her work at www.witsendpuppets.com.