“Echo” by Pam Muñoz Ryan: A Discussion Guide for Writers

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Pam Muñoz Ryan’s middle-grade novel Echo weaves three historical fiction stories together with a flick of fairy tale magic. A witch’s curse and a magic harmonica travel from Nazi Germany to Depression-era Pennsylvania and to Southern California amidst World War II before colliding in New York City. Writers can use Ryan’s novel as a mentor text for exploring the tools and pacing needed to bring different story threads together, evaluating the balance between story and history in a historical fiction novel, and examining how endings affect a reader’s experience.

Use the discussion questions on your own or with a book group to investigate Echo.  As you consider each question, take note of how your own manuscripts apply Ryan’s methods.

These discussion questions were inspired by the KidLit Book Club meeting at The Writers’ Loft. We’d love to have you join us. Check out the Loft calendar to find out about our next meeting!

Discussion Questions:

  1. Ryan used a magical harmonica to connect the three distinct historical stories in her novel. How was this tool effective? How did she manage the thread of the harmonica and make it feel unexpected and random? How do writers move a plot forward using coincidence in a way that feels natural versus forced?
  2. Could Ryan have written a strictly historical fiction novel? Did she need to add magical realism? What would have been lost? What would have been gained?
  3. Some readers applaud a happy ending with a neat bow while others are just as satisfied with a bit of heartbreak and a smidge of question at the end of a novel. Consider how Ryan ended her story: how would the ending have changed if Ryan let one of the three historical stories end with tragedy? Would the novel have been strengthened or weakened? Consider what type of endings you crave as a reader and what type of endings you create as a writer.
  4. Ryan’s novel is historical fiction. What tools did she employ to ensure that her novel reads as a story instead of a history lesson? Does selecting a historically significant time for your story’s setting give it added marketability?
  5. Ryan’s novel is almost 600 pages. Might this length deter MG readers? How do you balance story and length in your own novels? For example, could Ryan’s novel have been a trilogy?
  6. Which of the three separate stories – Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy – was your favorite? Which was more memorable? What was it about the writing, character, and/or plot that made this story stand out? Were you able to move on from Friedrich’s story? Or did you become so invested in Friedrich that you didn’t let yourself invest in Mike or Ivy?
  7. How do quotes at the beginning of chapters affect the reader? How do they aid the reading experience? How can they interrupt it? Consider how Ryan used creative chapter beginnings to set tone and mood.
  8. With technology, readers have the option of listening, as opposed to reading, novels. What happens when an MG novel is read aloud? Did readers in your group have a different experience if they read Echo versus if they listened to it? How might the method by which your reader accesses your novel affect their experience?
  9. Book reviews are often used by potential readers to pick their next book. Read a variety of reviews on Echo – both 5 stars and 1 star. How do these reviews compare to your own thoughts on the novel? Consider how the reviews varied from each other and from your own assessment of the novel. Use this exercise to thoughtfully assess reviews on your own novel and/or comments from critique partners and agents/editors.

To learn more about Pam Muñoz Ryan, visit her website at http://www.pammunozryan.com/.

Under The Skylight: Revision

by Erin Dionne

I FULL WELL ADMIT IT: I’m not a great writer. I’m an okay one.

But I’m a great reviser.

Having the ability to revise, to not be precious about your words so that you can clearly execute your book’s idea, is one of the single best skills you can cultivate as an author. Strong revision skills make your writing go from good to great, and so on.

Being a strong reviser requires three things: objectivity, persistence, and desire to create the best story you can. Let’s take a closer look at each: Continue reading

Couch to 30K

by Laura Woollett, PMP

NOVELISTS ARE OFTEN TOLD that the way to get the job done is through many hours of “butt in chair.” There’s truth to this. You can’t write a novel without writing one word at a time. But where to start? And how to gain momentum, especially when you’re just beginning a new project?

Try thinking about the process of writing a novel in a different way—like a runner. Novice runners sometimes follow a plan called the “couch to 5K,” which allows for someone who is pretty sedentary to work their way up to running a 5K race. Writing is similar in many ways to running. It’s REALLY hard to run a race only days after deciding to do it, especially if you’ve never run any farther than from your car to Dunkin’ Donuts on a cold morning. (Guilty!) In the same way, it’s REALLY hard to write a novel without building your writing muscles and stamina over time.

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Aiming High and Aiming True: Finding Your Book’s Audience

by Allison Pottern Hoch

WHILE WORKING ON YOUR BOOK, you probably imagined your ideal reader. Maybe an eager young bookworm so drawn into your story they miss their stop on the subway. Or a retiree relaxing by a pool, cracking the spine on your newly minted tome. While this is a great tool for crafting your novel, when it comes to marketing, you need to think bigger. I guarantee you have other readers beyond that ideal, readers you may have not even thought about yet. The key, of course, is getting those readers to show up.

If you read my first post or attended one of my workshops, you’ll know how strongly I believe in preparation. When it comes to marketing yourself, it’s important to have both realistic expectations and a sound plan. Knowing your desired audience before you lift the phone to make a cold call is critical. “Readers” or “fans,” even “children” or “adults” isn’t sufficient. In pitching yourself to any venue or media outlet, they’ll want to know who is going to tune in and how many.

Audience is key to everything: it’ll help determine the best venue, event style, promotional partners, and event date and time. Most books have more than one audience; that’s representative of a rich and varied narrative, bravo! But trying to aim for all those different audiences at the same time, while not impossible, can stretch you thin. By identifying the key audience for an event or marketing strategy, you are focusing and amplifying your energy to reach those specific readers. You’re designing a program in which a consumer can easily see themselves and their interests. And if you know who you’re marketing to, your venues and media outlets will too.

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Stealing the Cat: How My Theft Led Me to The Writers’ Loft

by Lisa Rogers

MY CONNECTION TO THE WRITERS’ LOFT began when I stole Heather Kelly’s cat.

I didn’t intentionally commit a crime: my husband, daughter, and I were on our daily hour-and-a-half walk with Tucker, our 90-lb. Treeing Walker Coonhound. After our Dalmatian nearly had his ears cut off by a cat crouched in some bushes, we’d been wary of letting this dog nose his way into shrubs. So when Tucker’s sniffer started eye-deep into a patch of greenery near a baseball field, we pulled him back.

What was in there turned out to be Heather’s cat, Jelly.

I’m allergic to cats, but my daughter isn’t, and she reached in and snatched up a beautiful calico female. We figured she was lost, so we took her home and safeguarded her in Tucker’s never-used crate.

Days later, I connected with Heather, and she claimed Jelly as her own.

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Anticipating My First SCBWI Conference

Eager but anxious, this first-timer will rely on The Writers’ Loft light-blue lanyards to find family.

by Cathy Stenquist

I WAS NOT OFF TO a good start. I had forgotten to scribble the SCBWI conference registration date on my calendar and to pre-read the course guide. I quickly ran downstairs to the computer, sure that it was too late. Missing the sign-up meant I’d need to wait till next year; but on the other hand, I could save some money I really didn’t have. That honestly didn’t sound so bad.

Then I had a second thought…I had worked hard over the past couple of years to learn about the craft of writing picture books. I knew deep down that I should go, that I was ready to go. Continue reading

Book Clubs—Not Just for Adults or Bookworms! A 7-Year Kids’ Book Club Veteran Shares Her Best Tips

by Wendy M. McDonald

IN 2010, AS MY DAUGHTERS finished first grade, I realized there was a huge difference in their reading abilities. Hermione was a voracious, confident reader, but Luna clung to Picture1.pngher step-one readers. Witnessing her twin zip through the Geronimo Stilton series and anything else she could find, Luna felt jealous and more than a little hopeless. She had
a collection of books she wanted to read, but was too afraid to try. The letters were too tiny. There were few—or no—illustrations. The long blocks of text may as well have been Mt. Everest.

I decided that not being able to read at grade level—yet—was no reason for Luna not to enjoy the stories that interested her. I would read to her, and she could read ahead whenever she wanted. But wouldn’t it be even better if a bunch of Luna’s friends read (or heard) the same book and I got the kids together to talk about it, just like a regular book club?

If you’d like to start your own kids’ or teens’ book club, I offer these tips based on what I’ve learned during my seven years leading a successful group. Continue reading