Grades 5-9; Lexile: 680

Echo, the new novel by award-winning author Pam Munoz Ryan, is a genre-defying book that’s a bit hard to describe. It’s an intriguing mix of historical fiction and magical realism with a bit of traditional fairy tale thrown in. It’s a book filled with magic, music and the power of love and family. And it all starts with a harmonica …

Young Otto is playing hide-and-seek in the woods when he gets lost and is unable to find his way home. He meets three mysterious sisters who proclaim that they are under a witch’s curse. They will help Otto find his way out of the forest if he helps them break their curse. Their spirits can only travel outside the woods inside a woodwind instrument, and they must save three souls before they can be free. It just so happens Otto has a Echo by Pam Munoz Ryanharmonica with him, which gives the sisters the vehicle they need to escape the woods and fulfill their prophecy.

Years later we are introduced to Friedrich, a young boy growing up in a small German town during Hitler’s rise to power. He is musically gifted, dreams of becoming a conductor, and practices his cello as he prepares for an audition at Trossingen musical conservatory. Friedrich has been bullied at school due to a large birthmark that covers most of his face, so he spends his days at the factory where his father works, a factory that produces the world’s best harmonicas. One day, while exploring a little-used outbuilding, Friedrich finds an old harmonica that seems to sing to him. On it he plays the most beautiful music that resonates deep within him. But these are dangerous times for someone with a physical abnormality like Friedrich’s. His sister, Elisabeth, has joined the Hitler Youth and is pressuring their father to have Friedrich submit to sterilization. This, combined with their father’s vocal disapproval and distaste of Hitler’s policies, puts Friedrich and his family in increasing danger.

Two years later we meet Mike Flannery and his young brother, Frankie, orphans in Pennsylvania. They both have a love of music, and Mike is especially adept at playing the orphanage’s old piano. This talent helps save the boys from poverty, as they are soon adopted by the aloof, mysterious and very wealthy Mrs. Sturbridge, who stipulates that the orphan she is to adopt must be musically gifted. But things aren’t as they seem, and Mike and Frankie aren’t warmly welcomed into their new home. Mrs. Sturbridge doesn’t even want to be in the same room as them. One day, on a shopping excursion in town, Mike sees a beautiful shining harmonica that seems to stir something special inside of him. He plays the most beautiful music on his new harmonica. Mike strikes a deal with Mrs. Sturbridge: He will audition for a traveling harmonica orchestra, and if he wins the spot, he’ll leave her house as long as she promises to keep and care for Frankie.

Finally we meet young Ivy Lopez, the daughter of migrant farm workers in California. It is a year after the bombing of Pearl Harbor, and Ivy’s older brother has left home to join the army. Her family has just received a job offer as farm managers for the Yamamotos, a Japanese-American family thatMusic Notes has been sent to an internment camp. Ivy’s solace is her harmonica, one of many that were donated to her school. The music she plays on it makes her feel as though she is “inside the song,” taking her to faraway places. Once in her new home in Orange County, Ivy is made to endure institutional racism as she and other Hispanic students are forced to attend schools separate from their white neighbors. Ivy and her family must also battle racism and hatred directed at the Yamamotos’ farm.

All three storylines come together in the satisfying closing chapters, bringing Friedrich, Mike and Ivy together for one final act.

Echo is a compelling novel, filled with beautiful language that perfectly conveys the complex and sometimes heartbreaking circumstances the characters are made to endure. The book’s length and shifting points of view might intimidate younger and less confident readers, and the fairy tale that bookends the novel might be confusing to some (we do find out what happens to Otto and the sisters in the final epilogue), but this book makes a great read aloud for older students. Each section provides a starting point for further historical research, and the introduction of different characters invites students to study character voice.


*Echo has been nominated for a Scout Award, Booksource Scout Awardan internal Booksource award. Booksource will nominate books throughout the year and then ask readers to vote on their favorites to determine the winners. The Scout Award is named in honor of the main character of Booksource’s most popular title, To Kill a Mockingbird. Read more about the awards here.