I’ve seen this one on a few different sites lately, particularly on the review blog of Patricia Tilton, who always has great taste, so I picked it up. It’s Ms. Ryan’s newest, released only last year, and it lives up to her classic style. It claimed Newbery honors this year.
Being a writer myself, I found the book and story layout really interesting. Readers jumps right into the tale on the very first page. There’s no title page. No copyright. Nothing. Just the initial scene, much like television shows do when they save the theme song and opening credits till after they’ve hooked their viewers. In this case, the initial scene acts as a prologue. It’s written like a folk tale that takes place long ago, with pretty pages decorated in a border to set it apart, with black text on white paper, then white text on black paper. Very engaging. Then comes the title page. Then the main story, which takes place in Germany in 1933. It’s sort of an abrupt jump from the folk tale, but it all ties in eventually.
A little more about the folk tale. We’re introduced to a young boy named Otto who gets whisked away to another time and place where three little girls are threatened by an evil witch. Incidentally, the story he brought into the woods with him, the story with his name in it which he reads to the girls, narrates the their story. But it is unfinished. He will be one of the characters who helps the girls to their happily-ever-after. Of particular importance is the harmonica they give him.
The rest of the book is actually the passing of the harmonica to three different children in our world. The first is Friedrich in Germany. But before Friedrich’s tale concludes, the story takes another leap when the harmonica moves on. This time we meet Mike, an American orphan in 1935. And long before we want to leave him, we’re jolted to California in 1942 where we’re introduced to Ivy, a third generation Mexican American. Her story, too, ends abruptly.
I haven’t taken time to tell you how Ms. Ryan develops each character, or how the historical context is so richly created. Or how the struggles each child faces are broken down to a very human level that kids can understand and relate to through her characters. Ms. Ryan illustrate the Nazi regime, including such delicate policies as the sterilization of those considered inferior. She shows the difficulties orphan had during the Great Depression. And she illustrates the inequality Mexican Americans faced as well as that horrible chapter in American history when we incarcerated Japanese Americans during the Second World War. Actually, I rolled my eyes a bit at all the sappy melodrama. But for kids who are experiencing this history for the first time, it’s a startling introduction.
So all the way through the book we’re left hanging. First the three girls and the witch, then each of the other characters. Their stories all mingle and come to completion in the final section of the text. The ending is extremely coincidental, but it wraps up the story nicely. The beginning and ending tie up in a nice neat bow. This wasn’t my favorite story by Munoz. The abrupt leaps drove me nuts. But it turns out sweet, story threads are intricately woven, and the language is eminently beautiful. I think kids will find it more intriguing than I did. Ages 10+