|Pam Muñoz Ryan|
Photo: Ryan Publicity
Pam Muñoz Ryan's epic novel Echo began as a way to write about a little-known court case, Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District. Her research led her to a school yearbook photo in which half the students were barefoot and each kid was holding a Hohner Marine Band harmonica.
That discovery took her on a journey involving three children's stories, all with a Hohner Marine Band harmonica at the center: 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. I got to interview Ryan for School Library Journal's Curriculum Connections. Here are a few highlights.
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….”