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2016 Newbery Honor Award Winner Echo: A Novel by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Echo: A Novel
2016 Newbery Honor Award Winner
Written by Pam Munoz Ryan
Published in 2015 by Scholastic
Grades 3-8
Book Review
Pam Muñoz Ryan, acclaimed author of Esperanza Rising and The Dreamer, has merged fairy tale with historical fiction in her beautifully crafted new novel Echo. Dinara Mirtalipova’s intricate black-and-white illustrations signal the fairy tale beginning, where we meet a boy lost in the woods. Three enchanted women give him a harmonica. This seemingly simple instrument carries the women’s deepest hopes which echoes those we all share—“to be free, to be loved, and to belong somewhere.” We are then swept across time and place through narratives woven together by the ethereal-sounding harmonica. We are taken to Nazi Germany, Depression-era Pennsylvania, Southern California during World War II, and finally to Carnegie Hall in New York City. We meet characters that experience heart aching struggle but ultimately triumph in the face of discrimination—Friedrich, a boy with a facial deformity living in Nazi Germany who composes music in his mind, Mike and Frankie Flannery, orphaned brothers during the Great Depression who find a home in piano playing, and Ivy Lopez, a Mexican-American girl whose musical talents make her feel noticed even when she is placed in a disadvantaged, segregated school. As the title suggests, each character’s story echoes the one that came before it, revealing stories of fear, loneliness, and human atrocity. Even more powerful though, are the echoes of hope, joy, and beauty that reverberate throughout this book through the power of music. Ideal for a class read-aloud, literature club, or independent reading, this book will grab students and offers an education in music and history alongside a captivating multilayered story.
Teaching Ideas / Invitations for Your Classroom:
Grades 2 – 8
Genre Blending. In Echo, Pam Muñoz Ryan uses a fairytale to bookend the historical fiction heart of the story. Reread the beginning and ending sections of the book with students, noticing common elements of fairy tales such as magic, repetition of threes, royalty, and good versus evil. Consider why Pam Muñoz Ryan would begin and end in this way emphasizing the ways magic could offer an opportunity to rewrite history during times of intolerance and discrimination. Next, support students to reread one of the four historical fiction sections of the novel noting historical details woven within the fictional narratives. Support students as historians to notice details about the people, places, and time periods represented by each section. What themes do students notice echoed across the historical fiction sections of the text that are universal human themes?  Finally, support students to do some genre blending in their own writing such as weaving fairy tale with fiction or fantasy with informational texts.
Closely Reading Characters. Throughout the book, Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy are brought to life through the powerful language choices Ryan makes. We feel their pain, self-doubt, and worry and leap for their successes. Support students to zoom in on one character tracking their feelings, inner thoughts, challenges, and courage throughout the story. In what ways do these characters teach us about vulnerability? Hope? Community? Support students to zoom in even more closely by finding sentences that they feel best portray each character. What do they notice about Ryan’s lyrical use of language and word choice? In what ways can they apply Ryan’s craft techniques to their own narrative texts?
Studying Character’s Voice.  Each of the main characters has a strong and compelling voice. Have students select one character and then find passages that reveal pivotal moments in that character’s life. Next, have students to create audiorecordings in the character’s voice. What emotion do they want to project? What should they do with their voices to convey this?  Compile the audiorecordings into a podcast for other classes to listen to and comment on.
The Language of Music. Music itself travels in many directions throughout the novel as seen across the characters’ stories as they come to own the harmonica. Start an anchor chart with students to track the new language and knowledge they gain about music. Have students keep their own music glossaries that they add to as they are reading Echo. Support student to research what musical terms mean online, through books about music, and by interviewing musical members of the community such as the school’s music teacher.
A Seemingly Simple Symbol. The harmonica. It’s an instrument that young children can pick up and play. Not often seen as a powerful sound-making machine, the harmonica becomes the star of this book,redefining how we think about this seemingly simple instrument. Consider with students why Ryan would select the harmonica as the instrument of choice for all of the characters to play. Introduce the term symbolism and consider the ways in which the harmonica means more to the story than simply being a tool for the delivery of sound. Read, view, and learn about the real Albert N. Hoxie Philadelphia Harmonica Band referenced throughout Mike Flannery’s chapters as well as the rise and fall of harmonica ensembles in America. Listen with students to the work of musicians known for their harmonica playing including Bob Dylan, Neil Young, Billy Joel, and Bruce Springstein (See Resources below). If possible, reach out to community partnerships to support your own students as harmonica players to experience the sounds and beauty of the harmonica for themselves. Have students compare and contrast their thoughts on the harmonica based on the ways various artists use the instrument.
Historical Fiction Text Sets.  Pam Muñoz Ryan has chosen some of the most devastating moments in history to portray through Echo. Support students in research teams to learn more about one of the central time periods explored in the novel: Nazi Germany, The Great Depression, School Segregation in the 1940s, and the Japanese Internment Camps of World War II.  Pair Echowith other unforgettable novels and picture books that capture these historical time periods including The Book Thief by Markus Zusak, The Harmonica by Tony Johnston, Esperanza Rising by Pam Muñoz Ryan , Moon over Manifest by Clare VaderpoolSeparate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation by Duncan Tonatiuh, So Far from the Seaby Eve Bungin, and Baseball Saved Us by Ken Mochizuki.
Author Review. Pam Muñoz Ryan is the author of Esperanza Rising, Becoming Naomi León, Riding Freedom, Paint the Wind, and TheDreamer. Support students to read across her novels noticing common themes about human struggle, identity, discrimination and freedom as well as specific ways she draws from earlier work in the creation of characters in Echo. Pair students as author reviewers writing brief summaries of the books they have read, opinions of her work, and recommendations for other readers who would enjoy her writing style. Share The Classroom Bookshelf along with book reviews from The New York Times, Kirkus Reviews, and the School Library Journal to discuss craft techniques for how to write a review.
Critical Literacy
Discrimination Across Time and Place. Central to the book is the theme of discrimination. Consider with students the ways in which each of the main characters, as well as secondary characters, are discriminated against based on their life circumstances, race, ethnicity, religion, or family structure. Discuss with students the ways in which discrimination takes shape in their own lives or in the lives of people they know. Have students comb digital pages of national newspapers for evidence of discrimination. What actions can they take to counter discriminatory statements and actions by others? If the harmonica traveled to a modern day character who would they be and what would their story have to teach us about understanding? Consider pairing students or using the method of shared writing to craft a new final chapter that takes place today. In what ways could the harmonica bring harmony to communities that are actively fighting against discrimination?
Online Resources
Author’s Site
Illustrator’s Site
Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Book Talk About Echo
Pam Muñoz Ryan on Writing Historical Fiction
New York Times Book Review
Harmonica Gallery including Albert N. Hoxie’s Philadelphia Harmonica Band and Philip Sousa’s Harmonica Wizard March
Harmonica Solos
History of the Harmonica Trailer
Classroom Bookshelf Entry for Southern California Mexican-American School Segregation Resources
Children of Japanese Internment Camps
National Archives on Japanese Relocation During WWII
Bunting, E. (1989). Terrible things: An allegory of the Holocaust. The Jewish Publication Society. Philadelphia, PA.
Bunting, E. (1998). So far from the sea. New York: HMH Books for Young Readers.
Johnston, T. (2008). The harmonica. Watertown, MA: Charlesbridge.
Mochizuki, K. (1993). Baseball saved us. New York: Lee and Low Books.
Ryan, P. M. (2000). Esperanza rising. New York: Scholastic.
Ryan, P.M. (2004). Becoming Naomi León. New York: Scholastic.
Ryan, P.M. (2010). Riding freedom. New York: Scholastic.
Ryan, P.M. (2007). Paint the wind. New York: Scholastic.
Tonatiuh, D. (2014). Separate is never equal: Sylvia Mendez & her family’s fight for desegregation. New York: Abrams Books for Young Readers.
Vanderpool, C. (2010). Moon over manifest. New York: Delacorte Press.
Zusak, M. (2007). The Book Thief. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.

Katie Cunningham About Katie Cunningham

Katie is an Associate Professor of Literacy and English Education at Manhattanville College. Her work focuses on children’s literature, joyful literacy methods, and literacy leadership. Katie is the author of Story: Still the Heart of Literacy Learning and co-author of Literacy Leadership in Changing Schools. Her book Start with Joy: Designing Literacy Learning for Student Happiness will be released September 2019. She is passionate about the power of stories to transform lives.


  1. Thank you! I love Classroom Bookshelf!