Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People

author: Monica Brown
illustrator: Julie Paschkis
Henry Holt, 2011

“Once there was a little boy named Neftalí, who loved wild things wildly and quiet things quietly,” this story begins. “From the moment he could talk, Neftalí surrounded himself with words that whirled and swirled...” With spare, honest prose and luminous illustrations—and with neither polemic nor dilution—Monica Brown and Julie Paschkis have condensed the essential elements of Pablo Neruda’s life to create an amazing biography for the youngest readers and listeners, a picture book that Neruda himself would surely have loved.

Neftalí’s childhood fascination with all that surrounded him—stones, shells, trees, flowers, “beetles and birds’ eggs and tall ferns that dripped water like tears”—and, especially, written and spoken words—became part of what made Pablo Neruda a poet.

But beautiful things were not all that Neruda saw. As a young adult, he saw people struggling to survive; he saw “coal miners working dangerous jobs for little money.” As Neruda “joined those who fought for justice and wrote poems to honor all workers who struggled for freedom,” he was transformed into a “poet of the people,” whose talent and passion and courage spoke to and for poor and working people in Chile and the world.

All of this is contained in Brown’s narrative, including a mention of what became the beginnings of a fascist transformation that caused Neruda to flee his beloved country. (Neruda died soon after a US-backed military coup assassinated his close friend, Salvador Allende, replacing him with the brutal dictator, Augusto Pinochet.)

Paschkis’s exquisite watercolor paintings of Neftalí’s development—from a child daydreaming of colors, seasons and animals into an accomplished poet writing of hunger, struggle and revolution—complement Brown’s text. Although the text is not bilingual (as I would have wished), the art certainly is. Bright, vividly colored ribbons of words, in Spanish and English—and sometimes in other languages, too—depicting both beauty and struggle, whirl and swirl around each page. On a Chilean beach, ribbons of blues and greens read, “sonrisa,” “salto,” “playa,” “bailando,” “salud.” On the flags of protestors, red ribbons proclaim, “obreros,” “liberación,” “aprender,” “remember,” “defend.” In a dark coal mine, gray ribbons read, “pobreza,” “nunca,” “never,” “hungry,” “angry.” When Neruda is forced into exile, ribbons read, “patria,” “peril,” “disappear,” “peligro,” “hidden.”

In an author’s note, Brown gives more information about Neruda’s life and work; and there is a resource page for further research. Effective companion texts would be Pam Muñoz Ryan’s The Dreamer, along with Antonio Skármeta’s The Composition, about a child’s facing fascism in his country. Both titles are reviewed on this blog.

Together, Brown and Pashkis have created a stunning mosaic—in words and art—of the revolutionary genius Pablo Neruda’s life and work. Pablo Neruda: Poet of the People is highly recommended.

—Beverly Slapin
(published 11/8/13)

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