Sunday, March 22, 2015

Echo, by Pam Muñoz Ryan -- multilayered, heartfelt historical fiction (ages 10-14)

Pam Muñoz Ryan captivates readers with this multilayered story set around the tumult of World War II. Themes of hope, resilience and inspiration echo (yes, pun intended) throughout three different characters' separate stories, set in Germany, Pennsylvania and California in the 1930s and 1940s. Already, my students are raving about this, telling each other that it's one of the best books of the year.
by Pam Muñoz Ryan
Scholastic, 2015
Google Books preview
Your local library
ages 10-14
*best new book*
Ryan's story is framed by a short fairy tale that introduces themes carried through the whole book. In this tale, young Otto started to read a magical story that suddenly comes to life -- in which the spirits of three cursed princesses are carried in a mystical harmonica. They will only be free if the harmonica can save someone on the brink of death.

The story then shifts to 1933 in Germany, where young Friedrich struggles to survive in Nazi Germany, dealing both with a birthmark on his face and an intense love of music, especially the harmonica. Ryan not only shows the conformity insisted upon by the Nazis, but also the risks people took to stay true to their ideas and passions. Through Friedrich, readers really feel the power of music to inspire and fill a person's soul. Friedrich works in a harmonica factory with his father and discovers the magical harmonica that Otto leaves behind. The chapter ends on a cliff-hanger as Friedrich tries to rescue his father from a Nazi prison camp.

I wondered if young readers would like the way Ryan shifts each section of the story to another location, following the harmonica as it travels from Europe to America in the 1930s and 1940s. Our 4th and 5th grade students who are ready to tackle a long novel are really enjoying it. Norah said,
"I liked how the author changed stories right as you were about to get bored with one story--I really liked how it was a total fairy tale in the beginning, and then suddenly changed to the beginning of WW2. I like how one object connects all the stories -- the harmonica."
Next, the harmonica travels to Depression-era Pennsylvania, where it is given to two brothers, Mike and Frankie Finnegan, in an orphanage. Once again, music plays an important role in their lives--both as a connection to their mother who taught piano lessons and to a wealthy woman who adopts them but doesn't seem to want them.

The final chapter is set in Southern California, where Ivy Lopez learns to play the harmonica and discovers she has exceptional musical ability. Ivy, the daughter of Mexican-American migrant workers, must confront segregation and discrimination.

In each case, characters find inner strength from their love of music and inspiration it provides. This comes across particularly well, as readers get the sense that each character's dreams are captured within the harmonica and passed to the next player. As Lora Shinn writes in Kirkus with her interview of Ryan:
"Echo contains lyrical, emotional descriptions of melodic pieces—often from the musician’s point of view—with such realism that it’s somewhat surprising that Ryan isn’t a working musician...
“That's the wonderful thing about music and so many of the arts,” Ryan says. “You don't have to be the one who makes the art to love and appreciate it or even to become an expert on it. Someone has to be the audience. Music is a universal language understood by both the person speaking—the musician—as well as person spoken to, the listener,” she says.”
The final chapter ties all of the stories together, as the characters meet in New York City in 1951 at a grand performance in Carnegie Hall. Several students commented that this chapter was confusing in the way Ryan jumped back and forth in time as she wrapped up each story. Even so, this is a story that they are recommending to one another with great enthusiasm.

The review copy was kindly sent by the publisher, Scholastic. If you make a purchase using the Amazon links on this site, a small portion goes to Great Kid Books. Thank you for your support.

©2015 Mary Ann Scheuer, Great Kid Books

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