This book was showered in honors last year, including a Newbery honor and an Odyssey honor for audio production for children. A great audiobook involving music, magic and history was one I didn’t want to miss.
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Read by Mark Bramhall, David de Vries, MacLeod Andrews, and Rebecca Soler. Scholastic, 2015.
A magical harmonica comes in and out of the lives of four children around World War II in this novel that reads like a series of linked novelettes. In the first, short story, Otto in Germany gets lost in the forest and meets three sisters lost in time. Next, we meet Friedrich, who has orchestral conducting in his blood but who had to leave school at an early age because of bullying around the constant conducting and the large birthmark that covers half his face. He’s still hoping to attend the music conservatory, but his hopes are endangered as Hitler comes to power and his father attracts attention due to his outspoken support for Jews.
A few years later, it’s the Great Depression in Pennsylvania. Mike Connelly and his little brother Frankey are living in an orphanage, just trying to stay together. The one thing that keeps Mike sane as he tries to avoid the attention of the sadistic matron is playing the out-of-tune piano in the dining hall. But as Matron wants to fill the orphanage with profitable older boys who can be hired out as farm help, little Frankey is in danger of being sent off to an even rougher orphanage away from Mike.
Later yet, Ivy in California is already dealing with her big brother Nando going off to war when her father takes a job as overseer for a farm farther north, whose owners are all in a Japanese internment camp. She’s always been first in her class, but when she gets on the bus to go to school for the first time, Ivy learns that she won’t be allowed to attend the beautiful new school in town, but must go instead to the run-down school on the edge of town with all the other Latino children. There she’s expected to spend fully half her time learning English, even though she’s been speaking it all her life. On top of this injustice, some of the neighbors feel that the Japanese owners must be traitors and are trying to convince Ivy’s father to sell the property.
Into the lives of all of these children comes the same harmonica, which sounds more beautiful than an ordinary harmonica, and which may be able to help them out of their difficulties. Only the first story is clearly magical – in the other three stories, the harmonica is there, but it isn’t clear if it’s magical or just confidence-boosting.
Each story ends just as each child is in the most dangerous position imaginable – in danger themselves with the person they care most about in even greater danger – and none of them are resolved until the very end of the book. I really cared about each child, and I found this very stressful! The production is truly lovely, with original and classical music throughout, including lots of skilled harmonica playing, and a different talented narrator for each of the stories. I watched several kids, including my son, get excited about this book (without having read it), which leaves me still wondering if this is a book that kids really enjoy or one that adults want them to enjoy. It does tell lots of beautiful stories about an important time in history, all the stories are so very dark, with unhappy forces pressing against the children from all sides and threatening to tear them apart from whatever loved ones they might have left (Ivy was the only one with two living parents.) So – not so good for younger or more sensitive children, but good for children interested in history, especially those who like lots of sadness and danger, and for adults who like children’s literature.