The past two weeks were book-ended by two of my favorite authors of books for young readers: Pam Munoz Ryan and Elizabeth Partridge. Ryan is the author of award-winning novels, including a classroom standard Esperanza Rising. Partridge is an equally honored writer, but she is best known for her nonfiction, especially her biographies of Woody Guthrie, John Lennon and Dorothea Lange.
At first, I thought of all kinds of reasons to avoid Ryan’s new novel, Echo. Lots of school work. A plane ride on which I didn’t want to carry a hardcover. So many books to read for Inly’s summer reading list. But those were only excuses. I knew exactly why I put it off for too long: 592 pages! Of course, I had read the glowing reviews, including Christopher Paul Curtis’s statement that Echo is “a masterpiece.” But still the sheer size of the book kept me away. After seeing another reference to Echo as a 2016 Newbery contender, I picked it up and started reading. I finished it a few days ago and literally can’t get it out of my mind. I think only about the kids and adults I know who will treasure this magical novel.
Echo contains four interconnected stories about a harmonica. It opens with a fairy tale about a boy named Otto who gets lost in a forest. Like all good fairy tales, there’s a curse. In this case, Otto meets three young girls who have been taken by an evil witch. The curse is that the girls can never return to their real lives until a magical harmonica saves three lives on the brink of death. What follows are the story of three musically gifted young people whose lives are saved by the harmonica. Of course, the harmonica is a thread that connects their stories to one another. Echo is a book about power of music over discrimination and fear. It’s also a rich and memorable novel that reminds the reader of the power of stories to inspire and transform our lives.
I also had the pleasure to hear Elizabeth Partridge speak at the John F. Kennedy Library’s conference, Sources of Inspiration: History Through the Arts and the Lives of Artists. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to participate in the whole program, but I was grateful for the opportunity to hear Partridge speak about her work.
Partridge is from a family of artists. She is the granddaughter of the photographer Imogen Cunningham, the daughter of a respected photographer, and the goddaughter of Dorothea Lange. In fact, she referred to her family’s relationship with Lange as a “blended family.” Lange died when Partridge was only 14-years-old, and Restless Spirit, Partridge’s book about Lange’s iconic photographs of migrant farm workers and Japanese Americans who were placed in internment camps during WWII, was, she said “my attempt to get to know her.”
In the case of John Lennon, Partridge said that she “chose a person to hold a time.” Lennon, she said “was a genius but also crazy. He was right on the cusp.” She went on to describe how Lennon’s Aunt Mimi (with whom he lived from the time he was four-years-old), Paul McCartney, and finally, Yoko Ono each served crucial roles in helping Lennon to, as Partridge described it, “manage his brilliance.”
Partridge’s next subject is the Vietnam War Memorial. “I’m trying to get enough information to really get to the heart of something,” she said.