Can one harmonica work magic for three kids living in troubled times?


From the Washington Post By Mary Quattlebaum

You’ve heard of magic wands and potions. But a magic harmonica? In Pam Muñoz Ryan’s new novel, “Echo,” this small musical instrument has a lot of power.

The book opens with a fairy tale and a witch’s spell. The spell can be broken only if the harmonica saves the lives of three people.

The magical harmonica then becomes part of three stories, all set during World War II.

In Germany, Friedrich wants to be a music conductor, but the birthmark on his face makes him “undesirable” to the Nazi government.

In Pennsylvania, Mike, an orphan, decides to try out for the boys’ Philadelphia Harmonica Band.

Ryan also wrote "Esperanza Rising," which also features ordinary things that contain magic. (Phillip DeFalco)

And in California, Ivy has just moved to a town in which she and other Mexican American students can attend the white children’s school only for orchestra practice.

The harmonica helps these characters in mysterious ways. And in the end, all of the stories come together in a surprising musical moment.

The ending surprised the author, too.

“I had no idea how the witch’s spell would be broken until I visited the Hohner harmonica factory in Germany,” Ryan said.

At a museum there, she saw exactly how some harmonicas had saved lives during World War II.

“I knew I had my ending,” she said.

On March 12 at the Takoma Park Library in Takoma Park, Maryland, Ryan will be talking about “Echo” and sharing photos of that factory and of real harmonica bands like the one Mike wants to join.

From the 1920s through the 1940s, harmonicas were very popular in the United States. There were many bands, and thousands of children played the instrument. The Philadelphia Harmonica Band was famous, and its leader, Albert N. Hoxie, often hired young orphans like Mike.

“I had no idea how the witch’s spell would be broken until I visited the Hohner harmonica factory in Germany,” Ryan said.

Harmonica bands are pieces of U.S. history that haven’t been written about, Ryan said. She enjoyed discovering these forgotten stories and including them in “Echo.”

Although Ryan doesn’t play the harmonica, she played the violin when she was in fourth grade. Her lessons didn’t last long, though: One day she tried to fix her broken school violin and messed it up even worse!

“I love listening to music,” she said. “I don’t think you need to do it yourself to really appreciate it.” Music can help you to feel hopeful during hard times, just as it helps her characters in “Echo.”

Ryan especially likes the songs from musical theater. (Look for the name of a famous musical play at the end of her book.) Growing up in California, she loved putting on plays in the back yard with her two sisters and the neighborhood kids.

As the oldest, “I was the boss and got to tell everyone what to do,” Ryan said, laughing. She was the writer and the director. For props, they used whatever they could find in the house and outside. A picnic table became a stage.

All of this sounds like wonderful experience for the 38 books she has written. Many include ordinary things that hold a kind of magic. There are the fruits in her first book, “Esperanza Rising,” toy sheep in “The Dreamer” and now the special harmonica in “Echo.”

— Mary Quattlebaum


Meet the author

Pam Muñoz Ryan will talk about “Echo”
at a free event sponsored by the Politics and Prose bookstore.

Where: Takoma Park Library, 101 Philadelphia Avenue, Takoma Park, Maryland.

When: March 12 at 7:30 p.m.

Ages: “Echo” is best for readers 9 to 14.

For more information: A parent can call 202-364-1919 or visit

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