Mona Voelkel

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Kid Lit Review: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan



Pam Munoz Ryan has written a lyrical Historical Fiction/Fantasy novel that begins and ends with a fairytale.  Three sisters have been cast out at birth by their monarch father  because only when the eldest progeny is a boy can his family, and not his brother’s, inherit the kingdom.  The midwife spirits each daughter to a witch’s “tumbledown shack,” where they live in servitude with only each other and their music as comfort. The king dies and when the midwife reveals the truth, the girls’ brother and mother goes into the woods and finds them.  Just as they are about to take the now joyous sisters home, the witch erupts in rage and casts a spell on them.  The girls find themselves in a place where “time does not pass” until their spirits “in a woodwind born” must “save a soul from death’s dark door.”

A harmonica with a red “R” threads the characters of Friedrich and his family in Hitler’s Germany, Pennsylvania orphans Mike and Frankie during the Depression in and Ivy, dealing with issues related to World War II, migrant workers and Japanese internment, together.

This book would be a wonderful read aloud with many opportunities to provide historical background information or launch discussions on themes as overcoming adversity or how we make a difference in the lives of others.  It would also appeal to independent readers who enjoy historical fiction or are musically inclined.

Finding pleasure, comfort and resilience through music is a central theme of the book.  The songs that are referenced in the book gives texture to the reading and amplifies the plot.  For example, the song, “When Johnny Comes Marching Home” is referenced during a time when characters are worried about their own sons coming home from war, the ebullience and hope in the song played in my mind’s ear, and made me think of how the music of a time is so closely twined to the experiences of a particular time  Music saves many characters in this book, including saving one from “death’s darkest door” and it would be interesting to find out from students how music impacts their lives.

I created a SoundCloud Playlist of songs mentioned in the book here

.  I imagined that if a song was mentioned during a Read Aloud of this book, students may discuss how this particular song relates to the plot or  write a response in their Reading Journal with that music playing in the background.   The book takes place in several distinct settings so enjoyed I created this YouTube playlist of videos related to the various settings  here.  I would play the Trossingen, Germany video without sound but it gave such a visual overview of the town that I included it.  Make sure to check out the videos of the Hohner Harmonica Factory and Albert Hoxie and the Philadelphia Harmonica Band!  Such a treat!

One reason to read Echo this summer is because it’s 585 pages and you probably won’t have time during the school year!  Tthe real reason to read Echo, though,  is because there is so much to savor.  It’s a beautifully crafted lyrical story whose melody stays with you long after the last page has been turned.  Read it so you will be able to read it aloud or recommend it to your students!

Guiding Questions:

  1.  How does a harmonica connect characters and events in Echo?
  2. Who has power in this story?  How do you know?
  3. How do the characters deal with adversity?
  4. What is prejudice?  How does it impact the story?

Writing Challenge:  Craft a short story, poem or play that weaves music throughout.

2 Responses

  1. If the characters are half as compelling as the play list, this book has got to be a winner. What a terrific review – thank you Mona! Another fun project might be to have students take a current song and turn it into a short story or play, to exercise those plot- and character-development muscles!

  2. I LOVE this book! The cleverness of the overarching plot and the device she uses to connect the stories is truly masterful. And I also just love the way she crafts sentences. A great rec, Mona!

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