Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan. February 24, 2015. Scholastic Press. 592 pages. Ages 10-14.
"Fifty years before the war to end all wars," a young boy named Otto becomes lost in the forest, where he is found by three sisters who have been trapped there by a witch's spell. The sisters help Otto find his way out, and in exchange he carries their spirits with him in the music of his harmonica, and promises to help them gain their freedom by passing it along to the right person, at the right time.
The harmonica first finds its way into the hands of Friedrich, a German boy in Nazi Germany. Friedrich is musically gifted, but his face is marked with a large hermangioma and he suffered from seizures as a newborn, thus marking him as an "undesirable" according to the Nazi regime. After his father is arrested, he fears his uncle will be next. Can they rescue his father and escape Germany before it's too late?
Next, the harmonica ends up in the hands of Mike, who along with his younger brother Frankie, were left at a "boys' home" near Philadelphia by their grandmother shortly before her death. There, they live in fear of being separated, until their musical talent provides an unexpected opportunity. But is it too good to be true? Can they trust their new benefactor?
Finally, the harmonica makes its way to Ivy in California during World War II. Ivy's family moves to what they hope to be a permanent home, managing the farm belonging to a Japanese-American family who have been sent to an internment camp. While her family had high hopes for their new home, they are faced with discrimination, segregation, and suspicion, all the while worrying about Ivy's older brother who has enlisted in the Marines.
The four stories all finally come together at the end, woven together with the common thread of music, and a little magic.
This is a beautiful, epic story that is mostly historical fiction, but with a little fantasy and music thrown in to tie it all together. I read another review that likened it in part to The Book Thief, and I think that's a fairly apt comparison, though obviously this is meant for younger readers. It is longer than most middle-grade novels, but it is really 4 stories in one, and I didn't want to put it down. Each child's story could stand alone, but are tied together in such a way as to make one truly beautiful, rich, and compelling read. The characters are well-developed and sympathetic; the storylines believable.
I did find myself a little frustrated that each story ended with a cliffhanger, and you had to wait until the very end to find out what happened to all of them. I was very tempted to cheat and skip to the end to find out if Friedrich and his family survived the Nazis, or if Mike and Frankie found a loving home together, but I fought the urge and held out until the end, and I was rewarded with a magical ending that united all three of the main characters, and some of the secondary characters as well. The ending was worth the suspense. Some may think the ending a little too neat and "happily ever after," but I don't have a problem with that, especially considering it is for younger readers. We can save all the misery, death, and depression for the teen and adult books.
Some readers might be put off by the length, but I would encourage them to give it a try, and think of it as a trilogy. I would recommend it to fans of historical fiction, and to those who like uplifting stories of children surviving difficult times, such as fellow Newbery Honor book, The War That Saved My Life. It might not have enough fantasy for a hard-core fan of high-fantasy, but it might have enough to entice some readers who do not ordinarily read historical fiction, and it might convince readers who typically prefer historical or realistic fiction to give some other books with light fantasy a try, so it's a nice cross-over book.
I really loved this book. Prior to reading it, I would have voted the Newbery to The War That Saved My Life, but now I think I'd have to vote for Echo.
Other Books By This Author
Pam Muñoz Ryan has written over thirty books for young readers, including Belpre Award winners Esperanza Rising and Dreamer, and Siebert Honor book When Marian Sang.
Other 2016 Newbery Award/Honor Books
Last Stop On Market Street, The War That Saved My Life, and Roller Girl.