In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s latest book, Echo, a magical harmonica brings hope and change to three children growing up in the shadow of World War II: Friedrich, in Germany; Mike, in New York; and Ivy Maria, in California. Ryan is also the author of Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon, among a number of other works for children and young adults. Ryan spoke with PW about the relationships to her previous works with Echo, the importance of art along the journey of maturation, and even her short-lived tenure as a child violinist.
You’ve got this new book coming out, but this year also marks the 15th anniversary of one of your most well-known books, Esperanza Rising. How does it feel to look back on that now?
It’s extremely gratifying. When you write a book, you sort of give it a giant hug and send it out into the world, and you really don’t know all the avenues it’s going to take or all the wonderful things that are going to happen to it. The play of Esperanza Rising, which was commissioned for the Minneapolis Children’s Theater, has been performed all over the U.S., and that was something I never dreamed could possibly happen. But what’s the most meaningful to me is how many letters I get from teachers telling me that it’s as relevant today as it was when it first came out.
Parts of Echo seem to call back to aspects of Esperanza Rising, particularly Ivy Maria’s story as a Mexican-American in California. Were those similarities intentional?
It actually was not intentional. When I began to write Echo, I had been researching an entirely different story about the very first successful desegregation case in 1931, in Lemon Grove, California. But while I was researching that case, I came across this photo of a bunch of students sitting on the steps of this particular school, and each of them was holding a harmonica. The elderly docent at the library told me, “Yes, that was our elementary school harmonica band. Everybody had one during the big harmonica band movement.”
That phrase – “the big harmonica band movement” – really piqued my curiosity, so I went home and began to research. That led me to the very famous harmonica band of 60 boys that played in Charles Lindbergh’s parade, using the same kind of harmonica as that country school. So I had the premise right there for two characters, Ivy and Mike, but I needed a third. I traveled to Germany to learn more about this harmonica and discovered that they used to have young apprentices in the factory. That’s how Friedrich’s story started taking place.
So did you know from the beginning that you wanted to tell these three interconnected stories, or were there other structures you played with? Did you approach this book any differently than usual in terms of your writing process?
It’s funny – every book is set up differently, but for this one I went out and bought a seven-foot-long, four-foot-high whiteboard to keep track of it all. I wrote what happened in each calendar month for each story, and then I also wrote all the leitmotifs that went across all three. When I write a book, I usually know the opening scene or the overall structure, and I know the emotional resolution that I’m hoping to reach, but I don’t really know where the characters are going to lead me in between.
So I had these three main stories, but I didn’t want it to be just episodic – I wanted there to be a richer thread to bring them together. And that’s what led me to this fairy tale that bookends all three of them. Writing fairy tales is almost like a different genre: there’s no backstory, and you do the opposite of what writers normally do in narrative, which is tell instead of show while the reader completely fills in all the blanks. The other thing that was hard was that the sections end on a cliffhanger, so there’s no resolution for each section; I had to leave them dangling. Part of what the fairy tale does is promise that, while it may not be a Disney happily-ever-after, there will be a resolution to tie it all together.
Thematically, music plays such a major role in this story, and it’s a large part of what brings these three stories together. Has music played a major role in your life as well?
Well, I’m not a musician, though at one time I thought I wanted to be one. I took piano lessons and violin lessons as a young girl – I was mediocre at best on the piano, but I was very smitten with the violin. I had a very strict violin teacher in elementary school, and he lectured us at length about the care of our instruments. One day the bridge of my violin popped out while I was practicing, and I was so terrified of what his reaction would be that I tried to fix it with a tube of wood glue. As a little girl in third or fourth grade, I really thought he wouldn’t notice! So I ruined the school violin, and that was kind of the end of my lessons. They ended in shame.
So I never really pursued any time of musicianship, except as a devoted audience member. But I think that’s the great thing: you don’t have to be a musician to love music, and you don’t have to be a writer to love books. In Echo, music becomes something beautiful and bright that allows people to muddle their way through a dark forest. For these characters, who live in such a trying time, I wanted music to be the emotional resonance in their lives.
If you could have readers take away one thing from this book, what would you consider the most important message?
Echo is about how music illuminated my characters’ lives during a very bleak time. I think most of my books are about these journeys where the characters have to grow and change drastically, whether the journey is an emotional one or a physical one. And if you look back to Esperanza Rising, even during the darkest time in her journey, there was always something inside her giving her the determination to carry on. I hope that the reader will enjoy the book for the story’s sake, but also that something will remind them that even during the darkest times, something pure and beautiful exists. Like music.
Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan. Scholastic Press, $19.99 Feb. ISBN 978-0-439-87402-1