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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal


ryanWhat’s not to love about this book?  All the storytelling elements–plot, character, setting–are superb, while the elegant simplicity of the language belies the thematic depth that resonates on every page.  Seems like a Newbery Medal winner to me!

The structure of this novel is ambitious, from the double stories that frame the three interior ones to the risky decision to leave each of those three stories with a cliffhanger ending that leaves their resolution–not to mention their interrelationship–to the denouement.  Because I was invested in each and every one of these kids–Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy–in equal measures, this worked beautifully for me.  I have talked to other people, however, who either felt drawn to one story more than the others or who found one to be weaker than the other two.  I suspect the success or failure of this book may hinge upon how invested in each of the stories the reader is.

While the book is long, the prose reads well and–much like DiCamillo or Applegate–is accessible even to the youngest independent readers.  Sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are all very short which, when coupled with the easy prose and compelling story, make this a quick read for a long book.

A final word about the theme.  To me, one of the most powerful ones to emerge from the three interior stories is loyalty–loyalty to family, loyalty to friends, loyalty to country–and it stands in counterpoint to the treachery and fickleness of fairy tale relationships suggested by the framing stories.  But there’s a lot we could talk about here.  So talk away!  What’s your take on this one?






Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I enjoyed this book, but I did not find it Newbery-worthy. Where others apparently see ambitious structure and risky decisions, I see blatant manipulation and too many of the seams. I don’t mind some emotional manipulation in stories, or cliffhangers, but I like it subtle, and this seemed calculated and obvious. Maybe that was the intended effect, but it didn’t work for me. I was disappointed in the ending, when everything seemed to wrap up with a pretty bow, but abruptly, without the emotional payoff I was hoping for.

    I read it when it first came out in February, which was a long time ago, but I do remember thinking that the story, even the interlinked magic bits, would have worked even without the framing of the fairy tale, which seemed sort of tacked on and in a different tone than the rest of the story. I’d’ve liked to see it as more of a magical realism type of thing. But I’d need to re-read it to be more coherent.

    I agree that perhaps not being equally invested in all of the stories may have contributed to my general “meh” feeling about the book. While I admit that Mike’s story would have been my favorite as a kid, as an adult and a parent I found it the most contrived and upsetting both in terms of plotting (is that will even legal? And what would’ve happened if she hadn’t changed her mind – can you imagine the unhappiness of a poor kid growing up knowing he was unwanted and barely tolerated? Or if the boys had simply reminded her ever more deeply of her own loss, every single day?) and the implications (children are replaceable, grief and depression are overcome through the actions of others, that there is an “acceptable” amount of time to grieve or that other people should be able to dictate how you express your grief). That’s not even getting into the problematic aspects of a white kid appropriating a black man’s music for his own gain without giving any credit.

    The multiple settings were well done, and I do agree that they were distinguished, as each individual setting was clearly depicted and the context in which each child lived made clear without too much exposition or taking away from the main story.

    • Benji Martin says:

      Alys, I’m afraid that I don’t understand your comment about race. Why is it problematic that a black man teach a white orphan how to play a certain style of music. I didn’t see it as anyone taking advantage of anyone but rather a friendship and sharing of interests. The lessons were given freely, so why should Mike not honor his friend by playing the music he was taught?

      • It was that he did it without giving any credit, essentially appropriating someone else’s musical style and passing it off as his own work and inspiration. (At least I don’t remember him giving any credit…I haven’t read it since February, and our copy is checked out at the library.) It’s not a huge thing, but I noticed it and wanted to point it out.

  2. I found the theme of challenging unjust power, which was carried through all three stories, to be breathtaking and well delivered.

  3. Leonard Kim says:

    Minor spoilers
    I think the really noteworthy thing about ECHO is the structure, in particular the decision to end each section with apparent disaster for the protagonist. The framing story enhances this by implanting the possibility of a curse or malign influence. I think it’s fairly clear the novel wouldn’t have worked with a more traditional structure. (None of the perceived disasters were “real” and, as Alys notes, the actual resolutions might be a bit pat.) But I don’t think ECHO’s noteworthy structure makes it a distinguished example of “development of a plot”.

    Several years ago, Jonathan wrote a post questioning why some readers seem to elevate “writing” over explicit Newbery criteria such as plot and setting.

    I think I am the type of reader Jonathan challenged, and here’s my defense, and why ECHO doesn’t get my vote. I do appreciate strong “concepts” – plots, world-building, etc., that must have taken great imagination and originality to dream up and design. Nevertheless, I am more of an “execution” person. I think I judge “development of plot” more by how well I think the plot (even a conventional one) is developed in the actual writing of the book itself and less by how impressive the author’s conception is (same with setting, theme, etc.) If you give me a detailed summary and spoilers for a book, my reaction could well be, “that’s awesome.” But sometimes, reading the actual book doesn’t add to the awesomeness I would have gotten from that summary. Yes, I was curious how ECHO would resolve and explain the cliffhangers the author set up. But sadly, I think my appreciation of what’s most noteworthy about ECHO would have been similar if someone had just described its setup to me and spoiled how it turns out. The actual book (as opposed to the concept) is not demonstrably superior, I think, to many other books that are as strong or stronger in traditional assessments of style, characterization, theme, etc.

    But I can totally understand judging things the other way. One reader might be frustrated by another’s lack of appreciation of how imaginative and amazing the authors’ ideas are. The other can’t get how people can be impressed by a book they don’t consider supremely “well-written” no matter how imaginative it is.

  4. I thought the frame story was the weakest part of the book, and I found the writing overly didactic in spots. That’s not to say that I didn’t enjoy the book, but I think there are better contenders out there.

  5. I listened to this book and the inclusion of harmonica music, ethnic voice characterizations, and other vocalizations enhanced an already great story. In addition to a Newbery contender, I hope it receives an Audie award.

    • Kathy,
      I agree, Echo was one of the very best audiobook narrations I have heard. I did not read the book and can’t imagine not having the music interludes & ethnic voice which enhanced the experience for me. Definitely an Audie.

  6. The structure of ECHO was certainly ambitious. I do not think it was well executed though. The frame story ruined it for me entirely and I felt the tying up of the threads at the end was clumsy. It’s been a long time since I read it so can’t comment on specifics in the story. It was rather forgettable for me once I put it down. For me it was just okay.

    Leonard Kim summarized my thoughts well in his above comment with this:
    “The actual book (as opposed to the concept) is not demonstrably superior, I think, to many other books that are as strong or stronger in traditional assessments of style, characterization, theme, etc.”

    • Renee McGrath says:

      I think that is a pretty broad, vague statement that you’ve quoted from Leonard Kim. There may be many other books that are as strong or stronger in traditional assessments of style, etc. but is he comparing THIS year’s titles to that or in the whole of children’s literature?

      And I don’t understand evaluating a book based on its concept rather than it’s actual execution. I think the structure of ECHO was very well done and so far, compared to other titles I have read from this year’s crop, I think it stands out among the crowd as distinguished.

  7. My criticisms are similar to those already stated – the framing and the wrap-up scene are the weak points in this otherwise excellent book. I really appreciated the three stories’ threads of magical realism, the portrayal of complex family relationships, and the way in which two of the three stories managed to subvert expectations. It was this investment in these notably original characters that really made the resolution of each cliffhanger fall flat. As Alys said “I don’t mind some emotional manipulation in stories, or cliffhangers” but for me they need to pay off, and in this case I felt they would have been stronger unresolved than with this particular and tidy set of resolutions.

  8. Eric Carpenter says:

    I thought any of the three stories would have made a fine, if slightly forgettable, and certainly not notable or most distinguished short novel, assuming that the reader was given a satisfying conclusion instead of the cliffhanger. But I didn’t think in the case of ECHO that the whole was greater than its parts. Like others above, I didn’t find the framing device particularly strong or compelling.
    I find it really hard to get behind any 500 plus page novel unless its a flawless work (ex. The Lost Conspiracy). For me, ECHO didn’t justify its length.

  9. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I’m sorry for going AWOL over the weekend, but here are some of my responses to the early comments on this thread.

    To my mind, this is clearly an example of most distinguished development of plot. We’ve seen Newbery books that juggle multiple story lines (HOLES and DESPEREAUX to name a couple). Those have three story lines; here we have five, although (a) the stories don’t alternate to the same degree and (b) the framing stories occupy a very small percentage of the overall story.

    Still, it’s an impressive feat to juggle that many balls in the air–and, yes, it does require an author to manipulate the story. But all authors who use multiple narrative threads from Brian Selznick to Steve Sheinkin to Rebecca Stead manipulate the story. This kind of manipulation doesn’t bother me and I don’t think it should bother anybody else either.

    Now each of the stories is abandoned at the climax and not picked up until the denouement: that small gap that each story is missing is often one of the most enjoyable parts of the story, and some readers are going to be disappointed in that storytelling choice, and I completely understand those who cannot get behind the book because they feel this aspect is “emotionally manipulative,” but ultimately I think it’s a “flaw” that is rooted in the reader more than one that is rooted in the book.

    One of the reasons it works for me is that the characterization and character development for each of the three main characters is at the level of most distinguished. That is, that they all think and act and feel like real characters, while at the same time they grown and change over the course of their respective stories. I know that some of you may disagree that we can have a running conversation about which book(s) are most distinguished in that aspect.

    I’m puzzled by the description of ECHO as didactic, so much so that I’m questioning whether we are using the word in the same way. I’ve read didactic books this year–yes, I’m looking at you, GEORGE–but this one comes nowhere close to that. Please clarify.

    And, finally, the length. This is one that I have wrestled with myself since I have been very critical of exceptionally long books in the past. ECHO comes in at 87,000+ words. For the sake of comparison, here are a pair of the two longest Newbery books in recent memory: MOON OVER MANIFEST (81,000+) and SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS (102,000+). ECHO is definitely long, but it didn’t feel long to me; I never felt like I was slogging through it.

    What impact does music have on the lives of a people? That’s a question that M.T. Anderson addresses explicitly in SYMPHONY FOR THE CITY OF THE DEAD. What does it mean to be a a loyal citizen? What does it mean to be an American? These questions are explicitly addressed by Steve Sheinkin in MOST DANGEROUS. But Pam Munoz Ryan’s story, too, is about these questions, and her answers are given in that final section where the shared experience of live music–as it so often does–becomes a spiritual experience, one witnessed by the audience and the orchestra–which happens to include a recent German immigrant as conductor as well as an young Irish-American man on piano and a young Mexican American girl on flute, playing a program of American music: Gershwin, Rodgers and Hammerstein. A final question: is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? Most assuredly.

  10. Leonard Kim says:

    One aspect of ECHO’s “manipulation” that I think is not really subjective and genuinely questionable is the “psych!” nature of the resolution. The ends of the three internal stories weren’t so much cliffhangers as clear suggestions that each tale ends in utter catastrophe and ruin. I think the resolution was unsatisfying to some because it almost feels like the author did not act in good faith – it’s basically an “it was all a dream” resolution. So the “uplifting” ending may feel unearned, because the characters did not actually undergo the trauma their individual story endings suggested, and thus do not really undergo growth or development between the fake and true ending. We get this sequence: 1) Story 2) Apparent Disaster 3) Gap 4) Psych! Happily Ever After. As a “concept” this looks to me very difficult to execute effectively from a “character” standpoint, and I appear to be one among several who feel it wasn’t really pulled off. (Additionally, I would even disagree about the strength of characterization in the stories proper, but I’ll defer that opinion to the discussion of the really great book about the transformative power of music… and Batty Penderwick.)

  11. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I must beg to differ, Leonard. Cliffhanger takes it name from, quite literally, hanging off a cliff. What could suggest utter catastrophe and ruin more than that? Many authors employ the device when using multiple narrative threads. I always cite THE GOLDEN COMPASS by Philip Pullman as an example where virtually every chapter ends with a cliffhanger and often those intra-chapter breaks, too. Sometimes authors pick up the action at the same place that they left their characters; other times they pick it up at some point in the future (prolonging the reader’s agitation about what happened to the character in peril) and reveal it through flashbacks.

    Ryan has employed the latter option with all three of the stories, and she has done it cursorily. So it’s not that there is a “gap” in the storytelling (as I incorrectly implied earlier), it’s that in moments of heightened tension and suspense the reader wants more showing and less telling. That’s why it feels emotionally manipulative to some readers because they feel entitled to a play-by-play account of how the character gets from the climax to the denouement, and when it’s coupled with that abrupt shift in time across all stories to get from point A to point B . . . well, it’s no wonder that it is not paying off for all readers. That shift in time did not faze me, though, because I knew it had to happen. In fact, we all should have been anticipating that jump in time at the end because none of the stories were simultaneous. We didn’t know exactly how it would happen, but we knew that it was coming. Right?

    The big question here–once again–is this: Is the whole greater than the sum of its parts? In other words, what are the themes that emerge from the book that serve as the connective tissue for what otherwise appears to be three disparate stories connected by a very thin thread of a plot device. I think each story has themes, and I think that there are themes that are common to each story, but I don’t think they are necessarily obvious (which is why I’m puzzled that anyone would describe the book as didactic). Why, for example, is the book called ECHO? If the reader can find the themes that emerge in each story (and in the final section) then I think the book is a more cohesive whole. If not, they are probably wondering why she didn’t just write three separate books.

  12. Eric Carpenter says:

    Jonathan wrote: “That shift in time did not faze me, though, because I knew it had to happen. In fact, we all should have been anticipating that jump in time at the end because none of the stories were simultaneous. We didn’t know exactly how it would happen, but we knew that it was coming. Right?”
    We might not have known exactly how the conclusion would happen but I assume all of us knew that the three characters would end up together at some music related event. The first story’s ‘cliffhanger’ works best because the reader isn’t expecting it, but as soon as that harmonica shows up in story two, it’s obvious that Friedrich’s story will intertwine with Mike’s at some point. For the plot driven (as opposed to character driven) reader, the act of reading Ivy’s story becomes a waiting game. First we wait for the “special” harmonica to make it’s appearance and then we wait for the story’s cliffhanger to emerge so that we can finally reunite with Friedrich and Mike to see how Munoz would wrap all this together. For me ECHO very well might be distinguished in terms of theme and is certainly distinguished in its delineation of setting but it isn’t distinguished in terms of plot.

    • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

      See, I’m a plot-driven reader, and I was invested in Ivy’s story, so while–yes, in one sense I was anticipating what would happen at the end–in another I was able to enjoy the story that was presently unfolding because Ivy and her story were interesting in their own right.

      Or, to cite the example I use when talking about structure in my seminars, even before I started HARRY POTTER AND THE DEATHLY HALLOWS I already knew some important things about the structure of the book: I knew we had to find the rest of the horcruxes, that we had to learn what Snape was up to, that we had to learn what exactly happened on that fateful night so long ago when Harry’s parents died, and Voldemort had to be confronted and defeated. I always had a mental checklist in my head while I was reading the book. I could enjoy the moment and the characters because I always had a clear direction of where we were in relation to the end of the book, not just by seeing pages turn, but by what had happened so far.

      So the best books are the ones that are both character-driven and plot-driven–and I would argue that ECHO is one of those, too. If Ivy’s story had not held my interest then I would agree with you Eric that we were just marking time.

  13. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I keep on getting caught up in the intricacies of this debate, and am realizing I need to re-read the book before I get in on the minutiae, as it was a while ago that I read it. I also need to go back and read for Alys’ comment about appropriating music, since it passed me by (a condition, sometimes, of being White) but rings true.

    I’ll say though just in general… While I did find in the book what others are calling “manipulative” and “didactic”, I want to point out that those words that have pejorative connotations really stand for something that can be well done in a book, and which I find well done here. The point of a book can be to get a message across, that is “didactic,” and most books do it. I did not find it overly done here. Similarly, some story structures depend on predictability: things playing out and coming together the way you expect them.

    I’d like to ask who you think is the ideal reader for this book. Because I picture a pretty young reader: 8-10. As an intro to WWII historical fiction for that age group, and for a readership who appreciates a “fairy tale” structured story, I thought Ryan pulled off something remarkable here, and that her tone–both “manipulative” and “didactic”–was actually pitched spot on.

  14. Leonard Kim says:

    Jonathan, as a reader, I still feel those endings felt less like cliffhangers and more like we’re supposed to think they’d fallen off the cliff. I didn’t feel suspense but actual (if abrupt) ending. And so as I was reading ECHO, I didn’t actually feel like those stories needed continuation. Unlike Eric, while reading, I didn’t think it became inevitable that the stories intertwine and coalesce when the harmonica turned up in Mike’s story. I was expecting something quite different—

    I think an equally possible expectation (given the frame story and the abrupt disaster endings) would’ve been of a traditional fairy tale and/or Holy Grail quest in which a cursed object (i.e., the harmonica) brings woe and misfortune to a succession of possessors until the last possessor somehow figures out how to break the curse or otherwise has innate virtuous qualities to avoid repeating history. I’m blanking on a good example right now, other than something like Lord of the Rings which isn’t the best example, but feel like this is a very common story in mythology and fairy/folk tales. I think this was a reasonable thing to think during most of a first read-through, and thus the actual ending could be seen as disappointing. That is, the fairy tale evocations are a disservice to the book’s “actual” thematic aims. Basically, for this specific reader, I think the author mismanaged my expectations — and this could be seen as falling down on both “appropriateness of style” or “development of plot.”

  15. Ryan does use another traditional fairy tale element, employing “the rule of three.” Three attempts are made to “save a soul from death’s dark door” with the third attempt succeeding, although the resolution is not with one of the main characters but with a secondary character (Kenny). (Yet more lives than Kenny’s are “saved” throughout.) When I’d finished ECHO, I was a little disappointed with what I thought was a “too tidy” ending, but the more I reflect on the novel as a whole and hear it discussed – the more I appreciate what the author has done. There is more going on than what first meets the eye.

    • Ah, MJ! I was just extolling the “one, two, three” symbolism that kept recurring in the book, and I didn’t even know about the rule of three – you’ve further excited my geeky former English major side!

  16. Gosh, I didn’t like this book at all. (“Maudlin”, “predictable” and “banal” were some of the words I used in my Goodreads review; these are not adjectives I would have applied to the two other Ryan novels I’ve read.) In my opinion, it was distinguished only by Ryan’s writing about the ambience created when music was performed and the musical intelligence of the main characters.

    In regard to the comments above about the book’s length, the book’s design contributes to that drawn-out feeling…it’s almost 600 pages, but the margins are 1/8 ” wider than usual. (I checked, the text layout looked odd to me.) Perhaps because the intended audience is that “pretty young, 8-10” reader? (The just slightly shorter Moon over Manifest cited above is 351 pages.)

    This discussion reminds me somewhat of the Printz award controversy over Midwinterblood, where a complex narrative structure apparently trumped character development, expressive writing, and a coherent plot. (I didn’t like that one, either.)

    • Nina Lindsay says:

      Huh. I’m a Midwinter Blood fan, but I don’t think it had a complex narrative structure. It was lightly linked shortt stories, and the character development was appropriate to each. I also don’t think Echo has a very complex structure.

      I truly have to read this again, and it’s not the top of my own list, but in my reading experience I entered dreading what presented itself as contrivance….and, I just thought she pulled it off. It is not what every reader wants out of a story, but I thought it did what it set out to do extremely wel.l.

  17. One thing I really appreciated in the structure of the book was the “one, two, three” imagery that was repeated. First the three sisters were named this way (which set this up for the rest of the story), then Friedrich counted “one, two, three” when he was conducting in his head, then there were the three stories… and this is just a cursory glance at it. I also don’t have our library copy in hand, but I found myself getting a little excited (in an admittedly geeky, former English major kind of way…) as I read the book by how this kept popping up. I’ll have to reexamine the writing to find where else this struck me, but it was definitely recurring. As I was reading Echo I kept thinking it was my surefire winner. That being said, however, the way everything tied up so nicely at the end disappointed me. I think someone else touched on it earlier – the way everything wrapped up at the end left me feeling emotionally distant. The ending did not affect me the way the rest of the book had.

  18. I’m the one who brought up ‘didactic,’ and unfortunately I’ve misplaced my copy of the book so I can’t cite exact instances at the moment (but if I wait until I have the book in hand again to reply, it’ll never happen!). I remember there being certain scenes, particularly in the Friedrich and Ivy story lines, where I felt that the characters were having conversations that were directed at the reader in order to convey information about the period. This method is a lot better than just info-dumping, but it still stuck out to me. As I think on it, that might just be because I, as an adult reader, already have a fair amount of context for those periods. Perhaps a child reader would need and appreciate that background information, or at least not notice how it was inserted. And perhaps I just have a low tolerance for didacticism, since Nina noticed but was not bothered by it.

  19. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    A side note: Does this have enough Latino content to justify a third Belpre Award for Ryan? ENCHANTED AIR by another two-time Belpre winner also seems like a possibility. I don’t think Julia Alvarez, the other two-time Belpre winner has a book out this year . . .

  20. Sue Giffard says:

    Like some other commenters, the conclusion was what bothered me. I reached the end of Ivy’s story late at night, and then had to wait all of the next day before I could get to the conclusion. The threads were out there waiting, and I had high hopes for a masterful ending. What I read had the feeling of a summary of a story. It felt forced, rushed and clumsy. My emotional investment in the characters collapsed. For me the biggest problem was not in the narrative structure or the plotting: it was in the writing of the end section.

  21. I, too, may need to re-read this one, but in the comments I wrote after very much enjoying it, I wondered if the ending was too “pat” – it left a bit of a bad taste with me.


  1. […] Hunt at Heavy Medals did some good pondering on this book so go thee hence and read what he has to say.  Personally I […]

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