November 21, 2017

The Advocate's Toolbox

Pam Muñoz Ryan’s “Echo” Reverberates With Hope| Interview

Listen to Pam Muñoz Ryan reveal the story behind Echo, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

 

IECHOn her epic novel Echo (Scholastic, February 2015; Gr 5-8), Pam Muñoz Ryan weaves together three stories of young people living through a tumultuous period in the 20th century: 12-year-old Friedrich Schmidt in 1933 Germany, as the Nazi Party gains momentum; orphaned 11-year-old Mike Flannery in 1935 Philadelphia during the Depression; and Ivy Maria Lopez living in Southern California in 1942 as World War II rages. Their stories revolve around a single Hohner Marine Band harmonica and are framed by a tale of a lost boy, three sisters, and a witch’s curse. Here Ryan discusses the origins of the story, how it grew, and the unexpected twists it took.

This is such a departure for you, isn’t it? What led you to these three stories?
It is a departure. I didn’t plan it like that in the beginning. I was researching what I thought would be my next book: a little-known court case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District, the nation’s first successful school desegregation court decision.

How did the thrust of your book change so dramatically?
I went to Lemon Grove, in East San Diego County. Looking through school yearbooks, I came across a photo of a class; half the students were barefoot and each kid was holding a harmonica. The librarian had attended that very school, and her brother was in that picture. Then I discovered Albert Hoxie’s Philadelphia Harmonica Band, a 60-member boy band. When I started researching that group, I noticed that in the photographs the band members were all holding Hohner Marine Band harmonicas.

That led me to the Hohner harmonica route. The situations [that I was exploring] lent themselves to a girl that might have played the harmonica [and the Lemon Grove case inspired many of Ivy’s circumstances] and to another child—a boy—who could have played in Hoxie’s band, which had many orphans in it [like my character Mike]. Not until I went to the Hohner factory did I learn that they had child apprentices [like Friedrich]. What I thought would be a small novella, ended up this gigantic book!

World War II definitely casts its shadow over these three children’s lives.
I didn’t set out to write a book that spanned a war. When I started researching the Hohner harmonica factory in Germany, and that period, I stumbled across a law about children that had hereditary diseases. Part of what made Friedrich’s story interesting is that we don’t hear about what happened to the people that didn’t look “perfect,” including Germans. [Friedrich, the apprentice at the harmonica factory had a large, wine-colored facial birthmark].

How did you keep track of the three stories, their themes, and the issues in each?
With a giant seven-foot-long whiteboard! I had to get one for my office, to keep everything straight, recording the calendar months and the leitmotifs that run through each story. A theme throughout the book was the warehousing of [people]; women in the fairy tale, and in Friedrich’s story, anyone who opposed Hitler, and of course, later, the Jews. In Mike’s story, it’s children [in the orphanages], and in Ivy’s story, Japanese Americans. I had to keep these recurring themes straight, and to remember to tie the threads as I moved through each story.

One of my favorite lines in Friedrich’s story is when he anticipates his audition for the conservatory: “How could he want something and fear it so much at the same time?”
Friedrich’s story is so much about the disillusionment of dreams. In his mind, he thought that he could have maybe gone to the conservatory, but he would still have stayed there in his town. His biggest worry was the audition, but there’s something larger [Hitler] that jeopardizes his entire existence.

In Mike’s story, [the adoptive mother] is the one who’s completely disillusioned  about the circumstances of her life—there’s another subtle theme about women being repressed. A lot of societal issues [were addressed in the book], and I had to present them matter-of-factly.

There’s the wonderful quote in Mike’s story as the boy goes through the music store that seems to reverberate with the harmonica’s journey: “Isn’t it wonderful! Music is just waiting to escape from all these instruments.”
There was the idea, as far back as my book The Dreamer (Scholastic, 2010) about Pablo Neruda. His premise was that your tangible essence travels with your tools, with anything that you’ve used with your hands. I love the idea that the harmonica carried something positive and self-affirming with it from [person to person]…that sense of euphoric well-being. It sounded so beautiful. I wanted that idea to carry that through the book.

Tell us about the fairy tale as a frame for the three stories.
From the moment they learn about Otto, the three sisters, and the witch’s curse, I wanted readers to suspend disbelief. By couching the three stories within a traditional fairy tale, I was saying to readers, “Come with me and believe…there’s some scary, hard stuff coming. The book is a dark forest, but we’ll make it to the end….”

 

TB-imageListen to Pam Muñoz Ryan reveal the story behind Echo, courtesy of TeachingBooks.net.

Curriculum Connections

This article was featured in our free Curriculum Connections enewsletter.
Subscribe today to have more articles like this delivered to you every month.

Share

Comments

  1. I love this book!. It’s amazing how Pam Munoz Ryan tied everything together. This should have been the 2016 Newbery Winner.
    I loved how the prophesy of the sisters:
    Your fate is not yet sealed
    Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,
    A bell will chime, a path will be revealed.
    held true for each of the main characters, Frederich, Mike and Ivy even though they were not aware of it.

    All three main characters demonstrated such sacrificial love for other people. They were very similar not only in their love of music but through their kindness and compassion for others.

    I hope this book will inspire lots of discussion between adults and children. With heavy issues like Nazi Germany ideology and Japanese Internment Camps, I think this would be a great book to introduce these issues.
    I plan to review this book on my blog in a few days.