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The historical and the magical intertwine in Pam Muñoz Ryan’s latest novel for young readers about the uniting power of music. Spanning decades and continents, ECHO opens with a fairy tale featuring an enchanted harmonica. Though separated by time and place, the characters in the stories that follow are connected by the same harmonica and the hope its music brings.

The first movement in Ryan’s symphonic narrative takes place in 1933 Germany, as Adolf Hitler and the Nazi Party are on the rise. A musical prodigy, Friedrich Schmidt dreams of becoming a conductor. Friedrich is an outsider with few friends, in part because of the large birthmark on his face. His difference brands him as an undesirable in Nazi society. Friedrich finds refuge in the harmonica factory where his father works, and where he discovers an unusual harmonica. With the instrument as a talisman, Friedrich sets out to free his family from persecution.

ECHO is a vital story of children confronting an unjust world through the universal language of music.

The next owner of the mysterious harmonica is Mike Flannery of Depression-era Pennsylvania. Mike and his younger brother are orphans, sticking together through hard times. Mike faces the threat of child labor unless he can persuade his reluctant new guardian to adopt both him and his brother. Mike’s musical ability may be the key to unlocking her heart.

Across the country, in California, Ivy Maria Lopez and her family are settling into a new home. The year is 1942 and America is at war. As in the other children’s stories, a harmonica offers solace with its beautiful music. Ivy looks forward to joining the orchestra at her new school, until learning that she must attend a separate school for Mexican-American students. Meanwhile, her Japanese neighbors have been rounded up and sent to an internment camp because of wartime suspicion. As soldiers --- including Ivy’s older brother --- fight fascism abroad, Ivy fights discrimination at home.

The final portion of ECHO ties together Friedrich, Mike and Ivy’s stories. Ryan excels at capturing the characters’ emotional journeys, though at times the dialogue feels repetitive and wordy. She forgets that, in speech and in music, the rests between phrases can provide powerful emphasis. In spite of these unsubtle moments, the novel's overarching social issues will resonate with readers. ECHO is a vital story of children confronting an unjust world through the universal language of music.

Reviewed by Emma Kantor on February 24, 2015

by Pam Muñoz Ryan