Marshmallow reviews Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

In the past weeks and months, Marshmallow has reviewed several books by Pam Muñoz Ryan. This week she went back and reread the very first book she had read by her, Echo. This book was published in 2015 and won Muñoz Ryan a Newberry Honor in 2016. Marshmallow originally read it for school a couple years ago, and she very much enjoyed revisiting it this week. Below she shares her thoughts on this 600-page page-turner.

(You might also like to check out Marshmallow’s reviews of Esperanza Rising (2000), Paint the Wind (2007), and Solimar: The Sword of the Monarchs (2022).)

Marshmallow reviews Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
Marshmallow reviews Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

Marshmallow’s Quick Take: If you like books based on historical events or if you have enjoyed reading some of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s other books, then this might be the book for you. 

Marshmallow’s Summary (with Spoilers): “Fifty years before the war to end all wars”, a little boy named Otto goes into the forest to hide while playing hide-and-seek and gets lost. Having recently bought a book and a harmonica from a Gypsy, he gets so intrigued by the story in the book that he does not realize how long he had stayed hidden.

The tale is about three sisters who were raised by a witch. The three sisters were in fact the daughters of a king who desperately wanted a son. Upon their birth, the king ordered the midwife to leave them in a forest. The midwife took pity on the babies and brought them to a witch, who named them Eins, Zwei, and Drei in the order they were brought to her. These girls grew up unaware of their royal origins. Years later, when the king died, his son (the sisters’ brother) learned of them. He and his mother were overwhelmed with happiness and sent the midwife to bring them to the kingdom. The midwife came and told the sisters the good news. However, the witch did not want to lose the girls, who had become useful servants to do all the work. She cursed them, saying that they could never leave the forest unless they saved someone’s life. 

After tripping and hitting his head, the little boy, Otto, wakes up and discovers the sisters in the forest. The sisters, Eins, Zwei, and Drei, help Otto find his way home but ask for a favor. They each take a turn playing the harmonica, and it appears that they store their spirits in the harmonica. He promises to pass on the harmonica when the time is right. 

Seventy years later, Friedrich Schmidt discovers the harmonica in Nazi Germany. Born with an unusual birthmark and a father who dislikes the new regime, Friedrich is not safe. When his father is taken to Dachau, Friedrich’s life turns upside down. 

Years later, in Philadelphia, Mike Flannery is living in The Bishop’s Home for Friendless and Destitute Children. His brother, Frankie, is a fountain of enthusiasm. Mike and Frankie must stick together. When a rich woman named Mrs. Sturbridge adopts them both, it seems like all their dreams have come true. Mike soon gets his hands on a harmonica that has an unusually magical sound (and yes, of course, this is the same one Otto and Friedrich had). However, Mike eventually discovers that Mrs. Sturbridge is planning to “unadopt” them and he must figure out a way for him and Frankie to stay together. 

Much later, Ivy Maria Lopez in California is excited to play a harmonica solo on the radio. The United States just joined World War II, and Ivy’s brother is off fighting in the army. Ivy soon learns that her family is moving again and she won’t be able to perform her solo. Upon moving, she faces segregation. The Hispanic children are put in a different school from everyone else. Prejudice and hate seem to be everywhere during the war. Can Ivy adjust to her new home?

Marshmallow is reading Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan.
Marshmallow is reading Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan.

Marshmallow’s Review: Echo is perhaps my favorite book by Pam Muñoz Ryan, and I really enjoyed (re)reading it. I especially love the end, and I really love how the separate stories are all tied up in the end. All storylines are set in different time periods, with different characters, and different plots, but they are all connected by the harmonica and wrapped together in the end. Some themes that are started in the beginning are repeated in the end, which makes it feel even more like a conclusion. It is impressive that the author could distinguish all the stories and make each a separate line but put them together in a fashion that was not clunky or confusing.

The characters are all unique, and you come to really care about them by the end of the story. They each have strong connections to music which brings them joy and empowers them to face challenges. The tragedies they face and the events that occur are all based on real history. (For example, while writing the book, Pam Muñoz Ryan researched Roberto Alvarez v. the Board of Trustees of the Lemon Grove School District (1931), a desegregation case from California with connections to Ivy’s story. The internment of Japanese Americans during World War II also plays a significant role.)

I think another strong point of this book is the fact that it tackles several challenging issues in one place successfully. The author weaves a tale spanning from Nazi Germany to a negligent, abusive orphanage to a war-torn California. The hate, neglect, mistreatment, prejudice, and unfairness the characters face and eventually overcome all make this an even more touching story. 

The only flaw with Echo one may find is the contradictory tones of the different parts of the book. The prologue is a major part of the overall plot but has a more fantasy-like, magical atmosphere. Then the vibe of the book changes significantly. The realistic, down-to-earth, historical fiction aspect of the rest of the story does not really follow naturally from the fantastic, magical, surrealist tones at the beginning.

However, I still loved Echo. I would recommend it to all readers. The writing is not particularly difficult to read but the topics and plot make it intriguing to older readers as well.

In short, Echo is a touching, majestic piece of literature that should hold a place on everyone’s bookshelf and everyone’s heart. 

Marshmallow’s Rating: 100%.

Marshmallow rates Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan 100%.
Marshmallow rates Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan 100%.

Marshmallow reviews The Inquisitor’s Tale by Adam Gidwitz

Today Marshmallow is reviewing The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, the 2016 novel by Adam Gidwitz which won a Newberry Honor in 2017. (Coincidentally she had already reviewed the book that won the Newberry Medal that same year: The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.) Following Marshmallow and her recommendation, Sprinkles also read the book, which offers a lot of food for thought, both for young bunnies and the not-so-young ones. The two bunnies discuss the book together below.

Marshmallow reviews The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly.
Marshmallow reviews The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly.

Sprinkles: So Marshmallow, why don’t we start with a brief introduction to the book? What is the book about?

Marshmallow: This book is about three kids, named Jeanne, William, and Jacob, and their dog, named Gwenforte. The kids have superpowers. Jeanne has fits and can see the future when having them. William is tall and very very strong. And Jacob has the power to heal people, but at an uncanny level. Even the dog seems magical. She died and then many years later reappeared above the plot of land she was buried in.

S: The subtitle of the book sort of hints at this, right? Three magical children and their holy dog?

M: Yes. And they are living in France, in the middle ages.

S: Yes, the story starts in 1242, and there are a lot of historical facts and people who show up in the book.

M: Yes, for example the king is Louis IX, the ninth Louis, and we also get to meet his mother Blanche of Castille. They are both real people from the history of France.

S: So in some very real sense this is historical fiction, which according to Wikipedia is “a literary genre in which the plot takes place in a setting related to the past events, but is fictional”.

M: Yes, but if we want to talk about genre, I think we might also have to talk about magical realism. Remember, I reviewed two books that I thought fit this category before: Ikenga and Hurricane Child.

S: Why would you say that?

M: Because everything seems real and like things are in the real world, but every now and then some weirdly magical stuff happens. And some of the characters interpret them as magic, and some think they are miracles. But they are almost always extraordinary and supernatural.

S: Can you give an example?

M: Jeanne has visions of the future for example. And then there is a dragon whose fart causes things to burst into flames. And everyone acts as if dragons are real and the main issue is that this dragon’s fart is unexpectedly deadly.

S: Yes, there is a farting dragon, and I am sure Caramel would love to learn more about that. And you are right, I think. I’d agree that this book is somewhere between magical realism and historical fiction. In fact at the end of the book, there is a section where the author explains which parts of the book are real history, which storylines he took from legends and myths and other stories of medieval times, and which he himself totally made up. All together these all add up to make a really rich story, don’t you think?

M: Yes. And the book is written like a medieval manuscript. There are illustrations on most pages, and they are credited as “illuminations by Hatem Aly”. Illuminations are the decorative illustrations that were sprinkled here and there in medieval manuscripts. We learned about them in history class when learning about the middle ages.

S: I can see why the author and the illustrator and the publisher decided to call these illuminations, besides the historical connection. I think they are not just illustrations that would accompany the text and depict some event happening in there. Sometimes they do not seem to be directly related to the story at all.

M: Yes, I think that is a good point. Then again, I think the illustrations by Jim Kay in the illustrated editions of the Harry Potter books I reviewed (Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s StoneHarry Potter and the Chamber of SecretsHarry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban, and Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire) are also like that. Sometimes they just decorate the page, make it look nice.

Marshmallow is reading The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly.
Marshmallow is reading The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly.

S: So you read this book a while ago and really wanted me to read it, too, so we could discuss it. Can you tell me why?

M: Because this book, more than any other book I read or reviewed recently, talks about religion at length, and I wanted to think out loud about some of the themes that came up together with you.

S: You are right of course. The book talks a lot about religion. Europe of the thirteenth century was almost a Christian continent, and we see this in the characters and their world views very clearly throughout the book. And Jacob, one of the three magical children, is Jewish, and we also see the tension between his world and the world of the other characters involved. In fact one of the main challenges the children have to face involves the king’s decision to burn all copies of the Talmud in France so as to get rid of all non-Biblical wisdom available to the Jews. And this was actually a real event that happened. Some background can be found in this Wikipedia article about the Disputation of Paris. Did you know what the Talmud was before reading this book?

M: No, I did not. But reading this book made me curious. It seemed to be really important to the Jewish communities and it seemed like Louis IX was trying to destroy something sacred to and vital for them. Then I learned from the relevant Wikipedia article that the Talmud is a collection of writings of more than a thousand Jewish scholars that addresses all sorts of theological and philosophical issues as well as very practical ones, like how to live one’s life.

S: So the children set out to try and save the copies of the Talmud that would be burned. Why did they want to do that? Only Jacob is Jewish. How come the other children agreed too that this was an important thing to do?

M: Because it was centuries of knowledge and wisdom collected and cared for by generations of people. And of course it was not fair to the Jewish communities who had so cared for these volumes of books one generation after another.

S: Yes, there is a part of the book when the children realize how each book is written and illuminated by a person who dedicates years of their lives to this work. And I really liked this because, even though we have the publishing press today and books can be published much faster, a book is still the product of many years of hard work of many many people.

M: And I like books! I mean I can like some books more than others, but every book I read takes me to a different world! I would not want even the worst novel I read to be burnt. And these are not novels. They contain sacred wisdom of a whole people. It just seems pretty terrible.

S: Yes, and the children can see beyond their own differences of world views, their own religious backgrounds, to see the value of these books and the cruelty of burning them.

M: Of course they are kind of guided to this by Michelangelo of Bologna, “the red, fat, and wicked” priest who begins as their nemesis and ends up being their friend and mentor. And in the end he turns out to be–

S: Wait, let us not spoil that. That is revealed all the way at the end and we don’t want to spoil it for our readers.

M: Okay.

S: How about we instead talk about one of the big questions of all time that shows up in the book? The question of evil? The question of the reason and the justification of the existence of evil in a world created by a good God?

M: Yes. Some really bad things happen in the book, and at some point the children are so sad that they ask why God ever allows for such bad things to happen if He is good. And I think this is a really tough question. I don’t know how to answer it.

S: I think you are not alone Marshmallow. This is a big question for a lot of theologians and philosophers. What did you think of the answers offered in the book?

M: I’m not sure I totally understood them.

S: Well, the main Christian answer is, I think, captured in the Book of Job, and the drunk friar named Roger Bacon recites a part of that book to explain that the living are too small to understand the grand plans of God. What may seem like evil to us may not be. What we find wrong and bad may not be.

M: And then there is a troubadour (apparently that is a “a French medieval lyric poet composing and singing in Provençal in the 11th to 13th centuries, especially on the theme of courtly love”) who gives a different answer. He says God is a troubadour. I did not quite get that answer.

S: Yes, there is a part of the story when a troubadour sings The Song of Hildebrand, a story of a father and son who meet in battle. The father recognizes his son but cannot convince him that he is his father, so they go on and battle and it is all pretty bad and sad all around. And the troubadour sings this song and the song is sad, too, but it is also beautiful. And then he says that this is how our lives are. When we live them, it may be sad and ugly and terrible and we cannot make any sense of it. But all in all, there is a song that God is putting together and that song is beautiful. I think in a way this is the same answer as the answer from the Book of Job. While we are in the thick of things, going through the rollercoaster of life, we cannot appreciate the big picture. But the faithful believe that there is a meaning to it all, and it is known to God.

M: Hmm, I will have to think more about that.

Marshmallow is reading The Song of Hildebrand in The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly.
Marshmallow is reading The Song of Hildebrand in The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly.

S: Okay, then let us get back to the form of the book. What can you tell us about the general organization of the book?

M: Well, there are twenty-seven chapters. Each of them is titled The Innkeeper’s Tale, the Nun’s Tale, and so on. Each is told through the perspective of someone else who knows a part of the story of the three children and their dog. And slowly, chapter by chapter, we get to learn their story as it unfolds. Also there is a main narrator, who is the “I” of the main story. And he is trying to learn about the children and what happened to them and so on.

S: So maybe it makes sense to also tell our readers that the story starts in an inn and the different people talking are all at that inn, taking turns, telling us the story of the children, in more or less chronological order.

M: Yes, I guess that would also be useful to know.

S: In that way the book resembles some medieval stories, in particular The Canterbury Tales and the earlier Decamoeron, which were each written as collections of tales told by a handful of characters one after another.

M: I did not know about those earlier books. But looking them up on Wikipedia, I see that they were both written in the middle ages, so it makes sense that the author chose this form. I like that!

S: Me too. It somehow gives the book an even more authentic feel.

M: Agreed.

S: Okay, Marshmallow, this is already a pretty long review. Let us try and wrap things up. Who is your favorite character?

M: I liked the children a lot. They are all good people. And they are also in some ways very realistic even though they have some strange super powers. They act like real children.

S: True. Which super power among the three would you have liked to have if you could choose?

M: Probably the healing power of Jacob. I think that would be really good, so I could help a lot of people.

S: Did you know the author would choose William’s strength? He says “Well, Jeanne has visions of the future. That could only screw you up psychologically. Jacob has the power to heal wounds—which just means I’d be running around like an EMT all day. William has incredible strength. That I would take.” (This is from a longer interview with the author, which you can find here.)

M: I guess I can understand that.

S: You have also read and reviewed A Tale Dark and Grimm, by the same author. Do you see any similarities between the two books?

M: That was a lot of fun to read but also kind of scary. This too has some scary things that happen. So maybe both would be more appropriate for older bunnies, like me, rather than Caramel.

S: I see. This one also engages with some pretty mature themes, so I agree that perhaps it is best for more mature readers, like you. So finally how would you rate this book Marshmallow?

M: I’d rate it 95%.

S: And what do you want to tell our readers as we wrap up this review?

M: Stay tuned for more amazing book reviews from the book bunnies!

Marshmallow enjoyed reading and discussing The Inquisitor's Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly, and rates it 95%.
Marshmallow enjoyed reading and discussing The Inquisitor’s Tale: Or, The Three Magical Children and Their Holy Dog, written by Adam Gidwitz and illuminated by Hatem Aly, and rates it 95%.

Caramel reviews Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon by Ruth Stiles Gannett

Today Caramel reviews Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon, that brings together the 1948 classic My Father’s Dragon, a Newberry Honor recipient, and its two sequels, Elmer and the Dragon (1950) and The Dragons of Blueland (1951), all written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett. As usual, Sprinkles is taking notes and asking questions.

Caramel reviews Three Tales of My Father's Dragon, written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.
Caramel reviews Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon, written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.

Sprinkles: So Caramel, tell me about this book.

Caramel: This book is nice if you like happy books and dragons.

S: Oh, so it is a happy book about dragons?

C: Yes and no. It’s also about Elmer Elevator, who meets a cat, who tells him about a dragon. Then Elmer goes and finds this dragon.

S: So is Elmer the father in the title?

C: Yes. The first part of the book is told by someone who calls Elmer “my father”. It makes it sound like it is a true story that happened to someone’s dad.

S: Hmm, so the narrator of the first book, My Father’s Dragon, is Elmer’s child, right?

C: Yes. And Elmer is a nine year old boy when things are happening.

S: So it really reads like you are hearing a tale that Elmer told his child and that child grew up and is telling you the story. And then the remaining two books are told in the third person, right?

C: Yes. There is no narrator calling Elmer “my father” anymore. Elmer is only a boy in those two parts.

S: I see. So then Elmer finds this dragon and they get to be friends?

C: Yes. The dragon has blue and yellow stripes and has a long tail and has red eyes and red feet.

S: That’s a very colorful dragon!

C: Yup. The cat helps Elmer devise a plan to help the dragon and Elmer goes and saves the dragon. The first part of the book is all about Elmer finding the dragon. Then they become friends, and in the second book, they are stuck in an island. Then the dragon takes Elmer home, and in the third part of the book he goes to his own home, Blueland. And then there is some trouble there, and Elmer helps him.

S: That sounds like a sweet story.

C: Yes, I think so.

Caramel is reading Three Tales of My Father's Dragon, written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.
Caramel is reading Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon, written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.

S: So you have read a lot of books about dragons. Does the dragon in this book resemble any dragons you know of?

C: Not really. This dragon is completely different. He does talk, and he is very colorful, like he is wearing striped PJs, dragon-sized and shaped of course. And I don’t think he can breathe fire or anything.

S: Do any one of Elmer’s family or friends meet this dragon?

C: No.

S: So is Elmer the only human involved in the stories?

C: Yes. There are canaries, there is the cat, there is an adult gorilla, and six baby gorillas, but there are not any other humans in the story. I mean, some show up, but they don’t really play a role in the story.

S: That is interesting. Somehow a lot of the things you are telling me about this book remind me of another classic Marshmallow had reviewed way back: Mr. Popper’s Penguins by Richard and Florence Atwater, There were humans in that story, but the tone of the book and the happiness you are talking about reminded me of that one. Anyways, did you enjoy reading this book?

C: Yes. I especially liked the pictures.

S: Oh, tell me more.

C: They are all black and white, but they are very detailed and I could see exactly what Elmer and his dragon look like.

S: That sounds great Caramel. Would you have enjoyed being friends with Elmer and the dragon?

C: Yep. They are both fun and nice.

S: So did you know that there is apparently a 1997 animated movie version of this story?

C: Yes, we just found it, but it is in Japanese!

S: Yes, so we could not really watch it and understand it fully, but it was nice to look at, wasn’t it?

C: Yes. Let’s put it in here!

S: Sure. We can put a link to it. Here it is: We might still watch it some day.

C: Especially if we learn to speak Japanese.

S: True. Okay, let us wrap up our review. What are your three words to describe this book?

C: Adventure, happy, friendship.

S: Hmm, those are not quite descriptive words, but I get your point. Thank you. So what do you want to tell our readers as we wrap things up?

C: Stay tuned for more book bunny reviews!

Caramel really enjoyed reading Three Tales of My Father's Dragon, written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.
Caramel really enjoyed reading Three Tales of My Father’s Dragon, written by Ruth Stiles Gannett and illustrated by Ruth Chrisman Gannett.

Marshmallow reviews The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill

This week Marshmallow reviews The Girl Who Drank the Moon, the 2016 novel by Kelly Barnhill that won the 2017 Newberry Medal. Sprinkles is taking notes and asking questions.

Marshmallow reviews The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.
Marshmallow reviews The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

Sprinkles: This looks like an interesting book Marshmallow. Can you tell us a bit about it?

Marshmallow: This book is about a girl named Luna and a witch named Xan. Luna comes from a village that sacrifices one baby per year. The baby is left in the woods, supposedly to be taken by an evil witch who lives in the woods. But it turns out that the witch is actually Xan, and she is very kind-hearted. She travels every year to pick up the sacrificed baby, and takes it to a loving family in a different village. The children brought by Xan are called Star Children in that village because Xan feeds them starlight before their journey through the forest.

However, one year, Xan accidentally feeds one of the children moonlight. Moonlight is more powerful than starlight and it enmagicks her. In other words, she ends up with extraordinary magical powers. Xan decides to name her Luna and raise her as her own.

S: That is a very interesting premise. And I can see why the book is titled The Girl Who Drank the Moon. I’m guessing that is Luna. So does Luna know any of this?

M: Not really. Not for a long time. And she cannot hear the word “magic”.

S: That is weird. So the book is about Luna and Xan and their adventures?

M: No. Not quite. There are multiple stories that are going on at the same time. There is a guy who is determined to kill Xan for example, but he is a good person, he just wants to protect his own child. And eventually we see Luna’s real mom show up. Lots of things are happening at the same time, and Luna is trying to figure out how to use her magic.

S: Hmm, that sounds intriguing. I might want to read it too some day.

M: Yes, I think you should. It is about family, love, and who becomes your family. Luna’s family is made up of a dragon and a bog monster besides the witch Xan, and eventually she is reunited with her birth mom too. And there is a surprising twist towards the end, but I am not going to spoil things.

S: Hmm, I guess I will just have to read the book to find out for myself.

Marshmallow is reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.
Marshmallow is reading The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill.

S: So apparently there was a prequel published right around the time the book came out. What did you think of that?

M: I thought it was interesting to get some backstory on one of the characters. We should probably put links to them in our review.

S: Okay, here is the link to the first part of the prequel, and here is the second part. We should warn our readers that there are lots of popups and ads on the linked pages but the story seems to be worth it.

M: I’d say so.

S: Did this book remind you of any other books you have read or reviewed before?

M: No, I think it was quite unique. I’d say it is really a beautiful story.

S: What you did tell me so far reminded me of a couple of the stories in Soman Chaimani’s Beasts and Beauty: Dangerous Tales. Or even the beginning of the School for Good and Evil stories. There, too, children are taken to save their villages.

M: Yes, I can see what you mean. And I do love the School for Good and Evil books. But I view this book as something quite different.

S: Okay, it is a book of its own, deserves its own place among your favorites?

M: I’d say so. I will definitely reread it at least once more.

S: So then would you be rating it 100%?

M: Yes!

S: And that is a good place to wrap up this review then. I might just grab the book and start reading it right away.

M: You do that! And our readers, they should stay tuned for more amazing reviews from the book bunnies!

Marshmallow rates The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill 100%.
Marshmallow rates The Girl Who Drank the Moon by Kelly Barnhill 100%.