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

by Kelly Carey

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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/.

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