Thursday, February 26, 2015

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan // Musical Magic and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.

Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.

Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, Echo pushes the boundaries of genre and form, and shows us what is possible in how we tell stories. The result is an impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck.

Let's just take a moment to celebrate the physical beauty of this book. You've already seen the stunning exterior in the collage above, and after opening the hardcover, you come upon these shadowy-tree pages of amazingness. They actually have the prologue written on them. The black pages have white text. 

 Then, you stumble upon the title page. I dare you to find a more beautiful title page than this. And each section header begins with a harmonica piece. This book is INFUSED with music.

 If I had to describe what this book was about in a few words, they would be: music and belonging. This book is about how music and belonging are intertwined, and how music can make even the most conspicuous outliers feel like they are a part of something.

The book is split into four sections with an extra prologue/epilogue section making for five. The general structure is this:

Prologue: Otto's story
Book 1: Friedrich's story
Book 2: Mike's story
Book 3: Ivy's story
Book 4: The conclusion and combination of Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy's stories
Epilogue: Conclusion of Otto's story

This, as you can probably tell, requires a masterful hand drawing all the stories together, so that the book doesn't feel like a collection of shorter stories without much connection. And, to her great commendation, Pam Munoz Ryan succeeds with this unique structure - most of the time. But we'll get to that later.

O People Who Know Music: this book will make you very, very happy. Never will you think, this sounds like it was written by someone who doesn't play and hasn't done their research, or I wish she had focused on his/her music a bit more, given more specifics. NO! This book is ABOUT music, people. And about Music People. I'm confusing myself and sounding like a salesman. 

What I'm trying to say is that this book is not about racism, or segregation, or injustice, or Nazis, or foster homes, or immigrants - though it deals with all of those in a mature and wonderful way. This book is, ultimately, about music and the love of music and those who love music. My little musician's heart is exploding with joy.

But beyond simply celebrating music (which it does with a passion), Echo also considers how music is a universal language and does not discriminate. Music helps you BELONG.

In Echo, we meet three children (well, technically four - Otto in the beginning). Each child is in an entirely different circumstance, but all are united through three things: Superficially, they all play the same harmonica. It gets passed down from one to the other without them realizing it. Technically, this is the story of that one harmonica's owners. (More on harmonicas later.)
But beneath that, these children are united by their love of music and their search for belonging. All three are considered by society somehow inferior - from having a conspicuous facial birthmark, to being an orphan, to having immigrant parents from Mexico. The wide variety of societal issues that Ryan chooses to address might be a bit much (sometimes I want the author to pick one problem and focus on it), but the way she is able to connect it all makes it forgivable.

Part of me wishes that this had been a series. This is partly due to what I mentioned above about the large number of issues Ryan tackles, and partly to the fact that there simply weren't enough pages to wrap up the stories without making it feel rushed. We are left with a few cliffhangers before we get to Book 4 and resolution, but that final book is only 35 pages long, and jumps ten years ahead in time. Lots of explaining and backtracking.

But then I reconsider. What makes this book so unique IS its odd structure, and breaking it apart into a series diminishes - and possibly entirely eliminates - the wonderful circles and parallelism that give it magic. I really don't know how Ryan could have done it better.

Now, a small diversion: I really wanted a prop for my bookish photoshoot, and I knew we had some harmonicas lying around. I went on a search, and found three in our piano bench - success! But then I looked closer at one and saw this:

HOHNER. MADE IN GERMANY. That's the same company that made the harmonicas in the book! I - I don't even know what to say. *flails about*

This book is a pretty epic middle grade book. It deals with big issues in an age-appropriate yet mature way. PLUS IT'S GORGEOUS, inside and out! Highly, highly, highly recommended, for readers of any age.

Echo just came out a few days ago, on February 24th, 2015! Thank you SO much to Scholastic (and Goodreads First Reads) for the review copy!

I really want to read more musical books now. Also - books with unique structures to them. Commence the recommendations below!