Friday, February 02, 2007

POETRY FRIDAY: To Go Singing through the World

One of the best things about shopping for books in a small, independent children’s book store owned by a former children’s librarian is the quality and the kinds of books displayed on the shelves…and the absence of celebrity titles, Disney versions of fairy tales, and picture books about canines with chronic gastrointestinal disturbances.

Last week, as I browsed around in the Banbury Cross Children’s Book Shop, a book cover caught my eye. Looking closer, I read the title: TO GO SINGING THROUGH THE WORLD. Liked the title. Read the subtitle: THE CHILDHOOD OF PABLO NERUDA. Now how could a poetry lover like me let a book like that sit on the shelf? I picked up the book, settled myself down in one of the shop’s comfy wing chairs, and began reading.

The text of Deborah Kogan Ray’s picture book biography befits a biography about the young life of a great poet: It is well written…and oftentimes lyrical. In illuminating the early life of Neruda, she blends her words with those of the Nobel Prize winner. Neruda’s words and the excerpts from his poems are printed in italics so the transitions in the text’s third person and first person narrations are made clear to readers.

I found this book about the early years of Neruda’s life interesting and informative. Neruda, born Neftali Ricardo Reyes Basoalto, was raised in the town of Temuco—a pioneer mill town “in the shadow of volcanoes and surrounded by rain forests” in Chile. Neruda’s mother died when he was very young. His stern father, Don Jose, was a railway man who wanted his son to do well in school so he could have a better life. Don Jose married his second wife, Dona Trinidad—who became “the guardian angel” of the poet’s childhood. The young poet was a good listener and liked to hear the “old” stories his stepmother told him about the Mapuche, the native people who were called Indians by the settlers. He listened to the conversations at his father’s table. He was “curious about everyone he met and fascinated by the world around him.”

Deborah Kogan Ray compares the young Neruda to a silent, waiting volcano with fires stirring deep within him. He was shy, self-conscious about his stutter, and “deliberately set himself apart and tried to be different” from the other more “boisterous” boys who often threw acorns at him. He built a protective shell around himself. He lived in a world of books, in the nature of the rain forest that he loved, in the thoughts and images that burned inside him, in the words he was able to write down on paper but not express orally to others.

As Pablo grew—so grew the town in which he lived. He began writing about school events for a small local newspaper. About this time, Gabriela Mistral, a famous poet who later became the first Latin American woman to receive a Nobel Prize for Literature in 1945, moved to Temuco. She was the new principal of the girls’ school. Mistral read the newspaper articles Neruda had written and “was impressed by his fine use of language…” She asked to meet the young man. Mistral became Neruda’s mentor. She gave him books to read, “opened new worlds” to him, and helped to crack the shell that he had built around himself. She encouraged Neruda to open up his heart and to express all the songs that were inside so the world could hear them.

This is a fine book in so many ways. Most importantly, it illuminates the life of a young man who was different from his peers, who didn’t do well in math, who lived in a world he had made for himself, who early on had a passion for stories and words, who had a burning curiosity to find out about the things that lay beyond his town—a young man with fears and desires who, with the love and understanding of a wonderful stepmother and the help and support of a caring and accomplished mentor, grew up to become one the world’s most celebrated poets. TO GO SINGING THROUGH THE WORLD is the kind of picture book biography I recommend to readers of all ages.

The back matter of the book includes Neruda’s poem, Poetry, printed in English and his native tongue, additional information about the lives of Neruda and Mistral, and a chronology of Neruda's life. On the front and back endpapers, readers will find a partial map of South America highlighting the country of Chile, as well as an illustration of the Town of Temuco—circa 1906.

P.S. I bought the book.


Written & illustrated by Deborah Kogan Ray

Published by Frances Foster Books/Farrar, Straus and Giroux (2006)

Pablo Neruda biography at the Nobel Prize Website

Poems by Pablo Neruda at


Bruce Black said...


Many thanks for a fine review.

It sounds as if Deborah Kogan Ray has captured much of the same emotional resonance a reader feels when reading one of Neruda's poems... so that his spirit shines out of her work, too.

Now that I've read your review, I'm eager to see the book.

Elaine Magliaro said...


I hadn't heard of this book until I saw it in the book store. I think Deborah Kogan Ray does a fine job of writing about Neruda and giving readers insight into his thoughts and feelings. It makes for a very personal biography--in fact, it seems part autobiography.

I'd love to get your opinion of the book.

web said...

If you should ever happen to find yourself in Chile, Neruda's house there is a fascinating place.