March 2015

The timeless power of music

By Pam Muñoz Ryan
Review by
The latest novel by award-winning author Pam Muñoz Ryan is a hefty yet riveting page-turner containing four interwoven stories.
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BookPage Children's Top Pick, March 2015

The latest novel by award-winning author Pam Muñoz Ryan is a hefty yet riveting page-turner containing four interwoven stories.

The first is a fairy tale about a boy named Otto who becomes lost in a German forest. He is rescued by three mysterious maidens who happen to be characters in a book that he has just bought from a gypsy. This gypsy also gives Otto a unique harmonica that has special powers. “When you play it,” the maidens explain, “you breathe in and out, just as you would to keep your body alive. Have you ever considered that one person might play the mouth harp and pass along her strength and vision and knowledge?” Indeed, this instrument has amazing “pay it forward” abilities.

The fairy tale is followed by three novella-length stories of historical fiction, each connected by Otto’s magic harmonica. It first appears in Trossingen, Germany, in 1933, where a boy named Friedrich yearns to become a conductor. He’s tormented, however, by his disfiguring facial birthmark, and his safety is threatened by a Nazi law requiring sterilization of those with deformities. The harmonica’s next owner is an orphaned boy in 1935 Pennsylvania who fears being separated from his younger brother and loves playing the piano. And finally the harmonica turns up in Southern California in 1942 in the hands of Ivy Maria Lopez, a young Mexican-American girl whose family’s fortune changes after a Japanese family is sent to an internment camp. These interwoven tales unite in a majestic scene in 1951 New York, along with a short epilogue explaining how Otto passed along his magic harmonica to begin its magical journey.

These fast-paced stories are woven together to give young readers a wealth of historical information in an incredibly gripping way. In a novel filled with real-life examples of prejudice and injustice, Ryan repeatedly illustrates an important message uttered by Friedrich’s father: “Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.”


This article was originally published in the March 2015 issue of BookPage. Download the entire issue for the Kindle or Nook.

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By Pam Muñoz Ryan
ISBN 9780439874021

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