Book Review: Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

The Basics: 

Clocking in at a whopping 587 pages, Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan is a multi-layered book that is hard to categorize, but will easily win your heart. Part historical fiction, part fantasy, the book centers around a harmonica and a prophesy that three sisters lend to a boy lost in the woods. This frame narrative holds together the three successive stories, which culminate in a literary crescendo. The harmonica finds its way to those who need it, starting with a birthmarked boy in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power, two orphaned boys in Philadelphia during the Great Depression, and a Mexican-American girl in California during the era of American’s Japanese internment camps. Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy all share a special connection to music that helps them through their various hardships…. Which sounds vague, but I can’t give too much away. The wonder is in the mystery, and no synopsis will do it justice!

What I Liked About It: 

There is an element of mystery in the book from the start. Three sisters trapped by a witch in the woods? Music as the uniting factor? All of these different storylines? That all end in cliffhangers?! My main concern throughout the book was “how does this all come together?!” and it kept me reading feverishly. I love books that have that effect on me. I have to admit, though, I once flipped to the back pages and read the ending before I was even halfway done with the book. Luckily, it didn’t make sense to me at that moment, so I just sped up my reading until I could fully enjoy the natural journey of the book.

And enjoy it I did. The three major story sections are so well written that you really fall for the characters -Friedrich and Ivy’s stories were my favorites – and when each section ends in a cliffhanger, it’s maddening beyond belief (in the best way possible)! But each time a story ended, I knew the next tale would be just as riveting. As you continue to become emotionally invested in the next character, and the next, and after entering three different worlds spanning three contentious, important historical moments, the book rewards you with the MOST AMAZING ENDING EVER. What I mean is, the ending is worth the wait, if you can stick out 500 pages to get to a good ending.

The Downside: It’s long. It’s meant for middle grades readers (and up, of course), but I don’t know a ton of 9-12 year olds (or… me) who have the patience to wait for the ending to come together without peeking.

Overall Rating: 4.5/5

Why I’d Recommend This Book: 

Even if you’re not the type of reader to tackle a book this large, you HAVE to read Friedrich’s story. This section of the book goes on my required reading list! It’s so good because, though I’ve read pretty much every book about WWII that has ever existed (I had an obsession for a while, okay?), the context here was so different and new. Friedrich and his family are not Jewish. Friedrich has a birthmark that makes him the object of teasing, but he has a very loving family in his father and older sister, who have always taken care of him. His love for music shines throughout the story. Then, while his sister is away at nursing school, she becomes a member of the Hitler Youth, throwing Friedrich and his father into turmoil – especially when it is no longer accepted to be neutral in Hitler’s Germany, or have a birthmark. This take on family dynamics in Germany was so fresh, and so compelling. A must-read!

BOOK REVIEW: Ghost by Jason Reynolds

This week my 6th grade students and I finished our read aloud book: Ghost by Jason Reynolds. I found the book on Amazon, and, seeing that it was a National Book Award finalist, I bought it. I then proceeded to do the thing teachers know they never should: start reading something with a class that you haven’t pre-screened. (I hate reading things first, though, because it just takes the excitement out of it!) Thank goodness there wasn’t anything too jarring lurking in the pages.

Ghost also caught my attention as a book because it has a cast of all black characters, and is written by a black author. I teach at a really diverse school, and as a white woman, feel like I need to infuse my curriculum with perspectives other than my own at every turn, so my kids can easily see people who look like them in what we learn.

Now for some summary: Ghost follows the story of a kid whose world was rocked by a violent episode with his alcoholic father. His dad now in jail, Ghost lives with his mom, gets bullied at school, stands up for himself only to get suspended… he’s just “got a lot of scream inside”, as his character narrates. The things that keep him going are sunflower seeds from Mr. Charles’ store, his book of World Records, and big dreams of playing basketball with the guys at the neighborhood courts.

Then Ghost walks by a track practice. His sense of competition gets the better of him, and he crashes the practice and runs a sprint next to one of the fastest kids on the team – and, he holds his own. The coach sees it go down, and wants Ghost to be on the team. But can Ghost get around that “scream” inside of him… and stop running from his problems instead of confronting them?

This is a book that hooked my students from the first day, when we hear about this normal kid’s big problem – his dad. It keeps kids hooked because, chapter after chapter, Ghost keeps making bad decision after bad decision – and it seems like he’s running out of people to save him. Yet, at the same time, his resolve to become a team member on the new track team seems to be pulling him in a different direction. We can’t help but love Ghost, and therefore be frustrated by him all the more.

I had a lot of students see bits of themselves in Ghost’s character, especially since he’s the type of anti-hero we don’t often read about in classrooms. But Ghost’s story bas been teaching my kids a lot. It teaches about bullying and its effects on the psyche, it teaches about the gaps privilege create, it teaches about perspective and it teaches about letting other people in. It teaches about addiction, and how its various forms can destroy lives and families. It teaches about taking responsibility for your actions, and overcoming adversity that has irrevocably changed the course of your life.

The sensitive issues in the book require you to have a good relationship with – or at least know a little about the lives of – your students going into the reading of Ghost. I had one student talk to me after class on the first day with this book, and tell me that maybe she’d like to sit outside during the read aloud – the situation with Ghost’s dad was too similar to one she’d personally experienced, and was striking a chord. I welcomed her to do so, if she felt that was what she needed, but also gave her a heads-up that the next chapter would only be about “track stuff”, so if she wanted to sit in just one more day, I’d like her to try that if she could. In the end, the book hooked her and she never did leave the room. In addition, the book has a pretty heavy moment near the end of the book, in which (spoiler alert!!!) Coach tells a story about his own dad chipping Coach’s tooth with a punch to the face, selling his Olympic gold medal for drug money, and dying of overdose (told more tastefully than my retelling here). My students were all very respectful of that moment in the book, but were also shocked, and full of questions, and so we set aside the curriculum and took the rest of the period to talk about this stuff – what addiction is, how it can change the way a person’s brain works and change the type of person they are, and how it’s hard to get help sometimes. And, of course, to process why people might do it in the first place, and how it can affect loved ones. The kids really handled this well, I can’t stress that enough. If it hadn’t I wouldn’t be writing this glowing review of the read aloud experience. And I know, many people could argue that these topics could be too much for 6th graders’ sensibilities, but with a guided conversation based on facts (and not judging the decisions of any characters in the book), it was an experience that they could learn from. This was an especially important day for us, as I know some kids have situations similar to these going on at home, and I sought to lead the conversation toward understanding and empathy, not condemnation of people going down the wrong path. But I think that’s a general understanding that this book generates so naturally – an affection for Ghost, who himself is a flawed character, many of these flaws set upon him by the decisions of others, and by his own loneliness. And kids get that, and root for Ghost anyway.

Our last day, when we finished reading, we took the rest of the period to analyze that last chapter of Ghost, the one where all of those themes I listed above came to fruition, as the conflicts came to a close. After taking the time to discuss the nuances we’d read, and the conclusions they could bring to us, both mine and my students’ appreciation of the book deepened. I’m not sure if they’ve ever analyzed a book before, but talking about this stuff as a class really brought out a serious side to my kids, and they left the room that day better for reading the book.

Plus, the overwhelming majority of them rated it a 10/10, which is pretty spectacular when I think about how defiant those kids are becoming… Sixth grade, am I right?

And the best part about the book? It’s the first in a series, the second of which is set to come out in August 2017… and get this, it’s called Patina, which is the name of Ghost’s fellow “newbie” teammate on the track team. If you’ve read Ghost, you know how exciting this is – and, my theory is, Jason Reynolds is going to make 4 books total, each in a different newbie’s perspective, based on the secrets each kid is carrying with him/her, just like Ghost (Again, makes sense it you’ve read the book). I can’t wait to read Patina! (And neither can my kids – “can we have a book club in the summer? Or next year?” YES!)