The Dreamer, written by Pam Munoz Ryan and illustrated by Peter Sís
I am poetry,
waiting to seize the poet.
I ask the questions
for which all answers exist.
I choose no one.
I choose every one.
Come closer . . .
. . . if you dare.
Neftalí Reyes stutters, is prone to getting sick, is never asked to play fútbol with the other boys, and his classmates call him “shinbone.” At home, he lives under the imposing shadow of a strict, controlling father who does not let anyone in his family have a voice–not Rodolpho, Neftalí’s older brother, whose real passion is singing, nor Mamadre, who Father treats more as a servant than a wife, and certainly not absentminded, scatter-brained Neftalí, who is always daydreaming, reading when he ought to be playing sports, and embarrassing Father in front of friends and guests.
In fact, everything about Neftalí disappoints his father, who constantly ridicules his son to discourage him from literary pursuits and even forces Neftalí to swim in the turbulent ocean every day as a means of toughening him up. How else will he stamp the dreamer out of Neftalí so that the boy can become a doctor or a businessman, someone who is respected and will not have to suffer or toil for a living?
It’s no wonder that Neftalí takes refuge in his imagination, where he can safely reflect upon the world around him. There, words come alive and his innermost thoughts and feelings “floated into the room and arranged and rearranged themselves into curious patterns above his head.” All throughout, Neftalí’s personal journey is framed by questioning verse:
Which is sharper? The hatchet that cuts down dreams? Or the scythe that clears a path for another?
From what are the walls of a sanctuary built? And those of a prison?
Does a metamorphosis begin from the outside in? Or from the inside out?
Gradually, it becomes clear that Neftalí’s life experiences–loneliness and isolation, the plight of the displaced Mapuche people and his wordless friendship with a Mapuche boy, his oppressive father, inspiring uncle, and growing self confidence–shape his poetry in a way that is incredibly intimate and universal at the same time. As a reader, I can’t help but question along with him. As awful as Neftalí’s father is, there is no doubt in my mind that his father loves him, even though he hurts those he’s trying to protect. Is that still love? As an observer of history, I see parallels between Neftalí’s life and that of his homeland, Chile, as a few brave individuals strive to speak out against an authoritarian government and the status quo.
As Neftalí discovers how to make his voice heard, his “poems became books that people passed from hand to hand. The books traveled over fences. . . and bridges. . . and across borders. . . soaring from continent to continent. . . until he had passed thousands of gifts through a hole in the fence to a multitude of people in every corner of the world. . . their wings beating with the same pulse, their hearts eager to feel all that he could dream.” After all, Chile has given rise to some of the best poets in the modern age, including Pablo Neruda, and Neftalí Ricardo Reyes Basoalto is no exception.