Wednesday, March 18, 2015

A Harmonica Echoes for Pam Muñoz Ryan

It was one of those moments of pure serendipity. Six years ago, author Pam Muñoz Ryan was in Lemon Grove, Calif., researching what she thought would be her next book, a novel based on what is now considered the first successful school desegregation case, Robert Alvarez vs. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District.

As she flipped through school yearbooks of the time period, Pam was transfixed by a photo of a band of children who were all playing one instrument -- the harmonica.When Pam asked about it, she was nonchalantly told: "Oh yes, that was our elementary school harmonica band. It was during the big harmonica band movement."

"That phrase -- 'the big harmonica band movement' -- was like someone dangling a carrot in front of me," Pam told a group of kids and adults gathered recently in my library (thanks to our partnership with Politics & Prose Bookstore). Pam readily admitted that she decided to go for the carrot, and began there and then to research the harmonica band movement, learning that, at one time, "there were 2,500 harmonica bands in the United States!"

That moment of serendipity convinced Pam to totally scrap the original idea for her next novel and instead focus on the way the harmonica might have changed people's lives. The result is Echo (Scholastic, $19.99, ages 9-14), a 587-page novel in which Pam writes of three very different characters who find themselves transformed by a magical harmonica. Each of the characters lives in a slightly different time period: Friedrich in 1933 Germany just as Hitler was gathering power; Mike in Pennsylvania in 1935 during the Great Depression; and Ivy in California in 1942, just after the United States entered World War II.

"When I heard about the harmonica bands, I was very intrigued that the same type of harmonica was used in little country school bands and also big harmonica bands," Pam said. "And so I began to wonder,  'What if one harmonica was passed from character to character?'"

As part of her research for the book, Pam visited the Hohner harmonica factory in Trossingen, Germany. It's a place that is fairly close to the Black Forest, the setting of many fairy tales by the Brothers Grimm. In another case of serendipity, Pam realized that using a fairy tale framework was the perfect way of tying together her characters' disparate stories in Echo.

"I didn't want their stories to be just episodic," Pam said. "So I started imagining the harmonica's back story, how it became to be infused with magic."

There was one problem: Pam had never written a fairy tale, and found that the genre challenged her authorial skills.

"Writing a  fairy tale is the opposite of writing a narrative.... In a narrative, you are taught to show, and not to tell. In a fairy tale, you tell, instead of show. There is no back story in a fairy tale. And, in a narrative, you don't want to make all of your characters all good or all bad. But in a fairy tale, you can do that because readers are supposed to suspend their disbelief and allow the magic to work."

Pam signs books for excited young fans.

Pam also was concerned about giving some kind of inspiration to her three characters, and the power of music was the perfect answer. Music helps each of the characters survive a very dark period in their lives. For Friedrich, it is the rise of Hitler and the fact that his birth mark makes him stand out -- not in a good way -- in a society focused on a perfect race. Mike, meanwhile, is an orphan who believes he must try to make his way in the difficult economic situation of the Great Depression. And Ivy is stunned by the segregation she suddenly faces in her new school district after her family moves from one part of California to another. For each of them, the same magic harmonica provides both inspiration and a connection through time.

In Echo, Pam conveys the harmonica's magic in a few lines of lyrical poetry:

"Your fate is not yet sealed.
Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,
A bell will chime, a path will be revealed."

Just published a couple of weeks ago, Echo has won rave reviews from critics. Writing in The New York Times, author John Stephens said simply: "Start to finish, the book is a joy to read." Publishers Weekly noted: "Each individual story is engaging, but together they harmonize to create a thrilling hole." And Kirkus Reviews called Echo "a grand narrative that examines the power of music to inspire beauty in a world overrun with fear and intolerance," adding that "it's worth every moment of readers' time." Pam also talked about the book with Roger Sutton, editor of The Horn Book.

Pam, meanwhile, is still basking in the glow of having finished a book that took six years -- the longest of any of her books, which include the best-selling Esperanza Rising, which is celebrating its 15th birthday and was recently named one of the best 100 children's books by TIME magazine. Asked what she's planning to do next, Pam noted that she's just finished another book in her popular Tony Baloney series of beginning readers: Tony Baloney: Pen Pal, which will be published in June. Pam also has enjoyed doing a book tour for Echo; as part of her presentation at my library, she wowed the crowd by playing America the Beautiful on the harmonica.

While Pam revels in being a full-time writer, she was a late bloomer who turned to writing only after a career as a teacher and raising a family. But Pam has always been a reader, and actually read some of the encyclopedias in her grandmother's house. As she says in the autobiography posted on her website: "My favorite volume was G, because it contained an illustrated section of Greek myths."

Politics & Prose display of Pam's books at our library event.

Books and reading became a real lifeline for Pam when her family moved from one side of Bakerfield, Calif. to the other when she was in the fifth grade. Suddenly she was the new kid, and to ease the transition, Pam spent the summer at the local library. She also found solace in music. As she told the crowd at my library: "During a somewhat awkward time in my life, books and writing and music saved me."

Pam added: "I write about the things I wanted to read about when I was a kid. And I write for the age when books made a difference in my life." In her website autobiography, Pam says that "today, I cannot imagine not writing. But I have a very practical approach to it. It is my job. One that I love. I want to deliver, for my publisher, for my reader, and for myself."

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