Sunday, March 27, 2016

Middle Grade Monday: The Dreamer (by Pam Munoz Ryan)

Summary of The Dreamer (by Pam Munoz Ryan)
As a young boy growing up in a Chilean village, Neftalí stands out from his peers.  His shyness and timidity cause him to spend most of his time alone with his imagination and books.  He stutters, but loves words so much that he writes them on pieces of paper and saves them.  While outside, he explores nature and collects interesting objects—shiny keys, beautiful stones, sea glass.  Stories come alive in his mind with the sights and rhythmic sounds around him of the forest, the rain, the ocean, and even his backyard.  

To Neftalí, family is vital.  He has a loving stepmother and inspiring progressive uncle who both encourage him to pursue his dreams.  His younger sister is sometimes a playmate, but always a loyal supporter.  However, his authoritarian father ridicules and often frightens Neftalí while attempting to encourage him to follow a traditional path of manhood and life. 

From harrowing days forced in the rugged ocean to an alarming fire in his uncle’s newspaper to witnessing racism toward native Mapuche, Neftalí finds his voice and path.  He grows up to become Pablo Neruda, a great poet and essayists. 

Using elements of Neruda’s biography and literary license, this story of truth and magic realism comes alive.  It is a story of compassion, perseverance, and splendor. The Dreamer, the 2011 Pure Belpre Award winner for fiction, is illustrated by the awarding winning Peter Sis.

The Dreamer is beautifully written. Pam Munoz Ryan does the fictional biography of a poet justice with her dreamy and vivid language.  For instance, when Neftalí first sees the ocean the author states, “He had never imagined the height of the white spray breaking against the rocks, the dark sand, or the air that whispered of fish and salt.”  

In addition, occasional poetic bits are intertwined like “I am poetry, prowling the blue, tempting my prey with fish, shell, and sky.” and “I am poetry, surrounding the dreamer.  Ever present, I capture the spirit, enslave the reluctant pen.”  These poetic elements represent Neftalí/Pablo’s calling to be a writer and poet. 

While the story is primarily realistic fiction, it floats into magic realism with Neftalí’s imagination.  For instance, he opens a window:  “A carpet of rain swept in and carried Neftalí to the distant oceans he had only seen in books.  There, he was the captain of a ship, it prow slicing through the blue.  Salt water spraying his cheeks.  His clothes fluttered against his body.  He gripped the mast, looking back on his country, Chile.”  These imaginative muses often accompany creative illustrations.  The novel is an excellent opportunity to discuss with children the difference between fantasy and reality in literature.

Most of the family relationships are positive and typical of a middle grade novel.  The only exception is the boy’s relationship with his father who is rigid and narrow-minded.  He has unreasonable expectations of his children.  Also, he is far too interested in his image than the well-being of his family.  Unfortunately, some children do have this experience. 

The majority of the book focuses on Neftalí as a boy and young teen, but readers also get a glimpse at what becomes of him when he leaves for university.  Overall, the novel is engaging to read.  Because it is so imaginatively created, it leads to many extension activities in reading, art, science, geography, and history.  

I recommend this book for children 9-13.  You can see a preview of the book here. 

Other Teaching Ideas
Art/Prediction Skills:  At the beginning of each chapter, there are 3 small simple pictures that preview what will occur in the narrative.  They are ideal for practicing predicting skills.  Show the pictures to the children and allow them to guess what might happen based on each one.  At the end of the chapter, revisit the pictures and evaluate the guesses.  I love this idea for other books as well.  After listening/reading to a chapter, students can draw 3 pictures that represent the major events that took place.   

Journaling/Writing:  Interspersed are some profound and imaginative questions which are perfect for creative or journal writing.  Like a poet, children can muse about abstract ideas like:  “What wisdom does the eagle whisper to those who are learning to fly?” and “Where will the waves take the debris abandoned in the freckled sand?”  

Poetry/History:  Pablo Neruda is a Nobel Prize willing poet.  Some examples of his poetry are included in the novel.  Older children can read additional poems by Neruda and even practice writing their own poetry.  They can also learn about his life and activism in his country.  (There is a brief overview at the end of the novel.)

Research/Social Studies: The Dreamer represents an authentic Latino voice and story to expand children’s experience of multicultural literature and lives.  Children may compare and contrast life in their communities with the Neftalí’s life in Chile.  In addition, use the novel as an opportunity to expand knowledge of Chile, other Latino American countries, the rain forest, and the ocean by doing further research to share or allowing students to do it for class projects. 

Scholastic has some discussion questions and links for additional educational opportunities.

Check out other Middle Grade Monday titles at Ramblings of a Wanna Be Scribe


  1. Sounds like a wonderful story. Thanks for the review!
    - Vi

  2. I missed this one when it came out. Thanks for the reminder to put it back on my list of future reads. The teaching resources your provided were great.

  3. This one sounds really cool! Thanks for reviewing! It's really clever how you have teaching ideas for the book. Keep up the good work!

  4. What an amazing story. I loved knowing that Neftalí had a problem with stuttering. There are only a handful of books out there for stutterers. I love the idea of magical realism. Have a review of ECHO waiting in my drafts, and I love Ryan's work. Great resources.

  5. I love the concept of this book! Neftalí sounds like a great character. Thanks for the review!

  6. Thanks everyone for stopping by for Middle Grade Monday. I appreciate you taking the time to read the review and comment.


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