Most people are satisfied to come back from a vacation with a few souvenirs, perhaps a tan and some fond memories. Award-winning author Pam Muñoz Ryan, on the other hand, returned from a recent trip to Chile with the idea for her next book. “Inspiration for books arrives in different ways,” she says in an interview from her home in Southern California. “In this case, it was like a confluence of rivers.”
In preparation for her trip, Ryan had brushed up on the biography and writings of several Chilean authors, including Pablo Neruda, the beloved poet whose work she had read as early as high school. While in Neruda’s native country, she visited two of his childhood homes and became fascinated by tales of his early life. Then, shortly after her return home, she met author and illustrator Jon Muth, who told her a story about Neruda that became, in many ways, the centerpiece of her beautiful new novel The Dreamer, which centers on the childhood of the budding poet.
In the story, the painfully shy young Neruda (known as Neftalí) finds the courage to exchange small gifts with another young child, a stranger, through a hole in the fence that separates their properties. Neftalí receives a beloved toy sheep, and offers up a remarkable pine cone that had already sparked his own imagination. The encounter, and the human connection and imaginative power it conveys, highlight the themes of Neruda’s early life as well as his later writings.
Stories like these inspired Ryan’s own imagination and sent her to the library, where she read biographies about Neruda and also became reacquainted with his writings. “Living with the poetry day in and day out,” Ryan says, “I became particularly fascinated with the Book of Questions and I became intrigued with the idea of integrating questions into my own book.”
Ryan’s novel does incorporate many questions—“Is fire born of words? Or are words born of fire?”—that will rouse young readers’ own inquisitive natures. She hopes that these questions will “allow readers’ imaginations to extend the text beyond the page.” As she wrote the novel, she imagined a reader, a daydreamer or “closet poet,” who might be inspired to jot down his or her own verses and images in the margins of her book.
As is fitting for a novel that relies so heavily on visual details and concrete images, The Dreamer is generously, almost magically illustrated by award-winning artist Peter Sís, whose delicate, pointillist drawings help enhance Ryan’s dreamlike, magical realist world. For Ryan, working with Sís was a true collaboration, a dream come true in many ways: “I’ve been a huge fan of his work for many, many years,” she says. “I remember many years ago going to a museum in Chicago and never even imagining that he would illustrate something of mine one day.”
Ryan, who has published numerous picture books, points out that writing an illustrated novel is a fundamentally different process than writing a picture book for younger readers. “A picture book is a marriage of art and words,” she observes. “When you write a picture book, you write with a more limited palette. In the case of the novel, the words were written first and his illustrations just added a whole new dimension.” Each chapter of Ryan’s novel opens with a Sís triptych that illustrates images, objects and moods that will play key roles in the chapter to follow. Larger-scale drawings also vividly illuminate the fanciful wanderings of young Neftalí’s wholly original imagination, accompanied by lyrical passages of text: “I am poetry, lurking in dappled shadow. I am the confusion of root and gnarled branch. I am the symmetry of insect, leaf, and a bird’s outstretched wings,” Ryan writes.
Young readers—and, in many cases, their parents and teachers—who come to Neruda’s work through Ryan’s fictional portrayal may wants to read more of Neruda’s original poetry. Ryan recommends that young readers start with his Odes, especially his “Ode to a Bicycle” and “Ode to a Lizard,” and, of course, with the Book of Questions. Several of Neruda’s own poems, as well as information about collections of his poetry, are gathered at the back of Ryan’s novel.
Poetry, too often, can be seen by middle-grade readers as opaque, abstract, difficult. In The Dreamer, Ryan expertly utilizes Neruda’s own excitement about nature, his enthusiasm for language and his unbounded imagination to inspire young readers’ inner poets. By giving them her own “book of questions,” Ryan prompts children to consider their own answers, and by doing so, perhaps write the world, as Neruda does, through their own unique perspectives.
Norah Piehl is a writer and editor who lives near Boston.