What You Need to Know:|
• This fictional story is based on the life of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda.
• The father can be extremely cruel and critical, instilling tremendous fear into each member of his family.
• The controversy over the discrimination against the native population is an important subplot and raises many
questions for discussion.
• There are also interesting questions scattered throughout, that will inspire thought and conversation.
• The Chilean landscape and culture play a key role in the story.
Neftali is an eight year-old Chilean boy at the start of the book. He is a daydreamer, constantly distracted by the little things he sees around him. He loves to collect odds and ends. What is trash to others is a treasure to Neftali. He believes that he gains some knowledge or benefit from everything that he touches. He dreams of seeing the world and uses his incredible imagination to visit far off places in his mind. His imagination is a much happier place than his real life where he is weak from illness, extremely lonely and living in fear of his cruel father. Because he cannot tolerate Neftali’s behavior, his father constantly berates him for acting so absentmindedly. His cruelty goes beyond verbal abuse when he forces him to risk his life in the ocean water and when he burns his precious writing journals. Neftali faces bullying throughout the book, from his father to his brother to a boy at school. He seems to survive by retreating into his own thoughts and imagination. That is where he can safely explore the ideas and concepts that intrigue him. As the years pass, Neftali continues to hope that he will discover another side to his father but he is continuously disappointed, as his father remains staunch in his refusal to allow him to pursue his dreams. Somehow, despite the obstacles he faces, Neftali finds his own voice and manages to find ways to share it with the world.
According to the author, the story of Neftali is based on the childhood of the Chilean poet, Pablo Neruda. As it was important to Neruda, the Chilean culture is key to this storyline. The people, along with the landscape and climate that surround them, are all portrayed in some detail. Government, politics and discrimination also play a role as the characters debate Chilean society’s poor treatment of the native Mapuche Indians. Another key feature, inspired by Neruda’s, The Book of Questions, is the inclusion of the author’s own thought provoking questions that appear as Neftali grows and develops. Also special are the coinciding extraordinary illustrations that create a unique element to Neftali’s story and really bring it to life. While the concepts here are lofty, the poetry is expressive, the author’s questions are thoughtful and the illustrations are intriguing, I’m not sure that this book is for everyone. The reader spends a great deal of time in Neftali’s imagination and there is not a lot of action. It is a great read aloud for you and your child or an excellent book club selection as it will definitely inspire conversation, but it may not be an easy read for some kids. Young poets may be interested in a selection of Neruda’s poems, included at the end of the book.
Pam Munoz Ryan
2010, 384 pages
Bullying, Discrimination, Ethnicity/Culture, Exquisite Illustrations, Family Life, Feelings, Good Book Club Selection, Government, Imagination, Poetry, Self-Awareness/Discovery
• Why is Neftali’s father so cruel to him?
• Did Neftali inspire you to write any stories of your own?
• What do you like to collect?
• Do you think that the Mapuche Indians are treated fairly?
• What is the significance of the swan that Neftali takes care of during his summer at the beach?
• How does Neftali handle all the bullies that he encounters?
• While Neftali may be weak on the outside, what makes him grow stronger and more confident on the inside?
• Who do you think gave Neftali his little sheep?
• Should the government control what people write and share with others?
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