“Music does not have a race or a disposition! Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.”
Every once in awhile a book comes along and surprises me by just how much it makes me feel. All books make me feel something, good or bad, but sometimes one is so special that it presses on my heart. Do you know what I mean? That almost physical pressure that is a combination of excitement and emotion and wanting to shout your love for the book from the rooftops. (I didn’t have a heart attack, I promise.) Echo is the kind of book that I want to force everyone I know to read, but that I’m afraid to recommend in case someone doesn’t love it. In which case I guess I’d be down a friend. (Just kidding. Sort of.) This book absolutely moved me and I cannot recommend it enough.
Echo braids together the stories of three children living during the World War II era. Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California. Through different circumstances, each child comes into possession of an enchanted harmonica. Stay with me here. That is the lone element of magical realism in the story, and Pam Munoz Ryan weaves it in perfectly. This is a WWII novel, but different from others that I’ve read. Instead of focusing on the war itself, the story is centered around people who have personal struggles in addition to the war (rescuing a father, finding a family, waiting for a brother to return), and these particular kids are trying to find a way to keep music in their lives at a time when music and instruments were seen as unimportant. In Germany, only Hitler-approved composers were allowed. In America, all available money was thrown at the war effort, and music was a more of a hobby for wealthy families or the lucky ones who had instruments pre-war. Music plays a huge role in Echo, and the characters’ lives are entwined using music as well.
Echo is a beautiful, heartbreaking, and uplifting book all at once. I was in tears by the end, and was not ready to let any of the characters go. While this is stellar middle grade fiction, I don’t see how adults wouldn’t love it too, even if you don’t usually read in this category. I do think it would be better for around age 10 and up. A cursory knowledge of WWII is necessary to understand parts of the book. I listened to this on audio, and I wasn’t comfortable listening to it around my 6- and 8-year-olds because there were some difficult topics (namely Hitler) that would have been upsetting to them, and they aren’t really able to comprehend an explanation for that yet.
Echo is truly a masterpiece, and Pam Munoz Ryan is a brilliant writer. This book is one of my favorites this year, and I’ll be thinking about it for a long time to come. Please let me know if you’ve read it so we can talk about it!
*I listened to this as an audiobook, and let me just say that the narration is the best I’ve ever heard. I mean, the BEST. Audiobooks are a recent addition to my reading life, and I loved the audio for Echo so much that I bought it (Somehow it’s only $3.95 on Audible!) and I do intend to listen to it again. There are several narrators, and the production is amazing. The audio version incorporates beautiful musical elements and performances that add another layer that only reading the book cannot. I truly think, in this case, listening to the book and then reading it would add so much to the experience of the story. Just click on the Audiobook version in Amazon and download it directly to your Audible app, or get it through your library on Overdrive!
Echo on Audible
“Ove had never been asked how he lived before he met her. But if anyone had asked him, he would have answered that he didn’t.”
Fredrik Backman’s bestselling novel A Man Called Ove almost didn’t get published. It was turned down by publisher after publisher, one even saying it had “no commercial potential.” I feel certain that that publisher is kicking themselves every day. It was published in Sweden in 2012, the English translation was published in 2013, and it’s been gaining a lot of traction over the last couple of years. I wish I had discovered it sooner because, for me, it is one of those perfect books that makes me wish at once that I had written it and also grateful that I’m the one who gets to read it.
At first glance, Ove seems like your typical grumpy old man. He is quite literally the guy walking around his neighborhood looking for people’s mistakes. Each morning he walks the same route checking the parking area, the bike garage, and houses, sometimes reporting repeated offenders to the authorities. From page 1 I could picture Ove and was taken with him, despite his outward prickliness. He is disgusted by all of his young neighbors who don’t know how to fix things themselves, and rather than have them do things the wrong way, he grudgingly helps them out.
“He was a man of black and white. And she was color. All the color he had.”
What we soon discover (and I’m not ruining anything here-this part of the plot is revealed fairly early on) is that Ove’s beloved wife died 6 months ago, and since he recently lost his job he has decided that since he is no longer useful on Earth he will join his wife in the great beyond. His plans are disrupted by his new neighbors: a gangly, accident prone man, his pregnant and persistent wife, and their two daughters. They insert themselves into his life and both families are forever altered in ways they never could have imagined.
“Men are what they are because of what they do. Not what they say.”
This is not a book about a charming old man who has a few quirks. Ove is no Matthew Cuthbert. But Ove is only grumpy, not mean. He knows he is right about things, and thinks other people are idiots for not agreeing with him, but he does not take pleasure in others’ misfortune. And as you get further into the novel, you will find out his reasons why he is the way he is, and why he has decided that his time on Earth is complete. His wife was truly his sunshine. The book begs the question: What would you do if the thing that sustained life itself for you was taken away? There is a familiarity in both Ove and the Pregnant One. (Yes, he really does call her that.) We all know a grumpy old man (or woman), and we all know someone who just won’t give up on people. And I think if we’re honest with ourselves, we can identify with one (or both) of those characters.
A Man Called Ove has so much heart. Maybe more than any other book I’ve read. Backman is an extraordinary writer and clearly a wordsmith. His ability to write a novel that is an unputdownable character study is extraordinary. I laughed and cried throughout the book, often on the same page, and when it ended I was sad to let the characters go. (And I immediately ordered all of his other books.) I cannot recommend this book highly enough. Even if it’s not something you think you might enjoy, please give it a try. I really think there is something profound about it in the simplest of ways, and you will relate to it at the very least, if not be completely moved by it.
World of Reading: Star Wars Star Wars 3-in-1 Listen-Along Reader Everyone’s Hero Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban Who is J.K. Rowling?
Anyone else love to snack and read? I definitely do, and my kids like to snack on popcorn while they read books. (And watch movies, play, and do anything else.) Butter, kettle, cheesy, plain, any flavor we have on hand will do!
More Star Wars! My 6-year-old can’t get enough, and if he’s happy reading these books, I’m happy to provide them. The World of Reading books are great because they’re leveled, so if you like to have a reading level guide when choosing books for your kids, this system makes it super easy. I found this Level 2 at Target and couldn’t find it on Amazon, so I the link is to the Level 1 reader in case you have a kiddo that would prefer Level 1! (And really, any Star Wars fan will be happy with any level.)
Who is J.K. Rowling?
Well, we are on quite a Harry Potter kick this summer. My 8-year-old saw this in the grocery store and looked so hopeful that I couldn’t say no. (Let’s be honest, I have a hard time saying no to any book.) I love the Who is series, and my son was thrilled to find the one about his current favorite author. This is a great introduction to Rowling’s life and the story behind the books, and I recommend it for any new, young Potter fan.
What We’re Reading Together
This is the book version of the Everyone’s Hero movie. My kids love them both. Yankee Irving’s dad works for the Yankees. When Babe Ruth’s famous bat, Darlin, is stolen, Yankee’s dad is blamed and he is fired. Yankee, along with a talking baseball named Screwie, go on a mission to find Babe’s bat and return it to him before the final game in World Series. I wasn’t too sure about this one at first, but my kids love it, and so do I. It’s a great adventure story with a little baseball thrown in. It reminds me of The Sandlot and Angels in the Outfield, so if you or your kids enjoy those movies, I really think you’ll all love this book and movie.
We are still reading this one together, and I still love reading the Harry Potter series to them. I know the audio versions are supposed to be amazing (and I recently purchased the first two in the series for a road trip), but there’s nothing better than snuggling up on the couch under a blanket after a long summer day and disappearing to Hogwarts for a little while. For those of you with younger kids who have read these books, or teachers of elementary kids, I have a question! Did you stop the books for awhile after the third or fourth book (where I think they start to get much darker) or let them keep reading? I know it depends on the kid, but I’m not quite sure what to do! Let me know![Top]
“I am not, nor will I ever be, the kind of woman who wears pearls with her apron while cooking meatloaf for her husband. But when I was a kid, my mother, Babs, prepared me to be the next June Cleaver—teaching me lessons that belonged to another era. Another world, practically. My mother’s world. I couldn’t wait to leave home and get away from her. But now, well . . . let’s just say life hasn’t turned out quite as I’d planned. And heaven help me, I’m going home.”
I love books that revolve around families, family sagas, or are true character studies of people. While Pamela Morsi is a romance author, I would not consider The Cotton Queen a romance novel. I first read it back in 2006 or 2007 and immediately fell in love with the main characters, a mother and daughter from two different eras who are trying to make their ways in the world in very different (although maybe not so different) ways. The Cotton Queen, at its heart, is about what it means to love someone and how strong a family can really be.
Laney Hoffman, the Cotton Queen of McKinney, Texas, 1975, thinks of herself as an independent, strong woman who is nothing like her mother. Babs Hoffman, the Cotton Queen first runner-up of 1956, doesn’t understand why her daughter won’t just listen to her. From Laney’s perspective, it seems as though her mom had an obsession with presenting a perfect façade–perfect home, perfect child, perfect life. What Laney doesn’t know is what Babs went through (she is a WWII widow and a rape survivor), and that her tendency towards beauty and perfection is her way of protecting her daughter. The story is told in alternating chapters between Babs and Laney, and we get to see their stories unfold from each perspective, from the day Laney was born up to present day (2004) with Laney’s 17-year-old daughter.
The Cotton Queen is a heartwarming, and at times heartbreaking, story about family and how far a mom is willing to go to provide a good life for her daughter. It is about mothers and daughters and how no matter how hard we may try to not be like our moms, a lot of the time we are exactly like them anyway, for better or worse. Laney deliberately makes choices that she thinks are the exact opposite of what Babs would do, not knowing how strong Babs really is. What happens when we discover that our inner strength may not actually come from ourselves, but from our mother?
This isn’t a tough read, but I wouldn’t call it fluffy either. It’s a solid story about mothers and daughters, love, and survival. Let me know what you think if you read it!
“I understand now that history only moves forward in a straight line when we learn from it. Otherwise it loops past the same mistakes over and over again.”
Dreamland Burning is marketed as YA, but if I hadn’t known that I would have assumed it was historical fiction for adults. It is a re-telling of the Tulsa race riots of 1921 (an event I’m ashamed to say I didn’t really know about), but at its heart it is a story about two teenagers finding out who they really are, and how they try to make sense of injustice in the world.
The story is told in alternating chapters between present-day 17-year-old Rowan Chase and 17-year-old Will Tillman in 1921. When Rowan discovers a skeleton under the floorboards of her family’s guest house, she takes matters into her own hands to find out who the skeleton was and how he or she died. What she discovers makes her question who she is and how far race relations have really come in the last hundred years. Will, a teenager in racially-divided Tulsa in 1921, finds himself in the middle of a race war that he doesn’t necessarily want to be in. He must decide not only how to react to a contentious situation, but how his actions will influence the kind of person he is now and in the future.
I loved this book. Couldn’t put it down, brought it with me everywhere until I finished it, loved it. Jennifer Latham researched the race riots so well and crafted a compelling story around them that I think anyone would consider a page-turner. The main characters were well-written and I felt like I really knew them. The story itself questioned race relations of the past and present, and made important observations about how far we really haven’t come without blatantly seeming like an author’s agenda. This is definitely fiction, but there’s a lesson to be learned as well. I was fascinated by the events leading up to the race riots and how the fallout from that is still seen in present day. We call it history, but not everything remains in the past.
I will say that towards the end, the family lines and connections got a bit mixed up for me, but that also could have been because I stayed up way too late finishing it. I also wanted to know more about the dynamic between Will and his community. His mom was an Osage Native American, and surely that would have played some kind of role as well. Maybe it’s from having read Killers of the Flower Moon recently, but I did wonder why that aspect was overlooked.
Overall, this is an interesting, well-written, page-turner of a book that I think covers an important, forgotten part of American history. If you don’t usually read YA, please give this one a try. It is such a good story, and really shows how much we can learn from history, and how important it is to never forget the past. As Rowan says, “The dead always have stories to tell. They just need the living to listen.”