How did you come to write the book?
I was researching an entirely different story and what I thought would be my next novel about a little know discrimination case in California in 1931. Roberto Alvarez vs. the Lemon Grove School District. It was the nation's first successful desegregation court case. While I was looking through archives at the historical society in Lemon Grove, I came across a photo from the early 1930s of a classroom of students sitting on the steps of the school, each holding a harmonica.
When I asked about the odd photograph, the elderly docent, who had attended that very school said, "Oh, you know, that was our elementary school harmonica band. Almost every school had one in the 20s and 30s during the big harmonica band movement."
There was a harmonica band movement? I went home and began to research Not only was there a harmonica band movement in the United States, but also Alfred Hoxie's then-famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band of Wizards, the 60 member band of boys who played in Charles Lindbergh's parade, and for three presidents. And the band used, primarily, one harmonica—the same model of harmonica in the picture with the children on the steps of the country school—the Hohner Marine Band.
I began to wonder about the children in that country school, and in Hoxie's band. Two fictional characters and their stories began to take shape. Mike, an orphan boy in Philadelphia who wanted to be in Hoxie's band, which by the way, WAS full of orphans. And Ivy Maria, a girl in a country school harmonica band. I began to wonder, too, "What if it by some odd fate, my characters, at different points in time, had played the same harmonica? And if it was the same harmonica, who owned it before them?
When I traveled to the Hohner Harmonica company in Trossingen, Germany, to tour the campus and museum of the largest and one of the oldest harmonica factories in the world. I learned about the young apprentices who worked in the factory before WWII.
Another character's story, Friedrich's, began to unfold.
I took the story farther. What if there was something magical about this harmonica that contributed in some way to each character's ability to carry on through fear and darkness. I began to imagine the harmonica's back story. That is how Friedrich's and Mike's and Ivy's stories became entwined and framed in a fairy tale.
Then, I needed a bridge between the two worlds: the fairytale world of magic and the harsh reality of the real world. I needed a character to live in both worlds so that he might deliver the harmonica from one to the next.
I needed an emissary. That character became Otto, the boy who is playing hide-and-seek in the forest on the first page of the book.
Did you plot out all the storylines ? How did they evolve?
Once I understood the bigger structure of the novel story: the three main characters' stories bookended by the fairytale and Otto's story, then each section developed organically. I knew how each story would begin and had the opening scenes in my mind. And I knew the resolution I wanted for the endings of each section, but I didn't know in advance how I might get there. That was organic. The characters often led me. But for the novel-as-a-whole, I bought an enormous magnetic white board (7 feet long) for my office. It held the monthly calendars for the span of each story in the appropriate years. I drew a chart with my leit motiffs - a term used in music for the recurring themes, phrases and words. Each story had a column. Thank goodness it was dry erase as I spent lots of time reworking the board. I wrote long lists of phrases and words that appeared in each story. I had never done this before but the book needed it. I needed it. The process for each book is different. But for this book . . . it was such a challenge I wanted to take on . . .
Are you a musician?
I am not a musician but at one time, I thought I wanted to be one. I took piano lessons and violin lessons as a young girl. I was mediocre at best at the piano. Even though we lived in a part of town that was not affluent, our elementary school had an orchestra! I was smitten with the violin and began lessons in earnest with my friend, Irene. But only a few months after I started, I had an incident with the very strict violin teacher. He had lectured us about the responsibility for the care of our instruments. When the bridge popped off of my violin while I was practicing at home, I was so terrified of what his reaction might be, that I secretly tried to fix it with wood glue. I actually thought the music teacher wouldn't notice! I had no idea the bridge was held in place by the tension of the strings and that all violinists are familiar with this occasional happening. I ruined the school violin. The music teacher was not forgiving and my violin lessons ended in shame. I wisely switched to glee club and a few years later in junior high, joined the school chorus. But I didn't pursue music from the performance aspect after that, except as devoted audience member. And a musical theatre and Motown geek.
That's the wonderful thing about music and so many of the arts. You don't have to be the one who makes the art to love and appreciate it or to become an expert on it.
Besides, someone has to be the audience.
How did you approach such difficult topics for children?
My goal was to be honest and clear, but not necessarily graphic, and to trust the reader to infer. I wrote hoping that there would be multiple levels of comprehension - to introduce a topic on a simple level but have another layer of understanding bloom for an older reader or an adult - or a more sophisticated level of understanding on a subsequent read. Entry point for discussion for tough subjects. One on one . . . opportunity for discussion.
What was interesting at the harmonica factory?
There is a museum on the grounds of the factory complex. I contacted the museum director and he was incredibly helpful. I asked if I could visit. Everyone at Hohner was wonderful and welcoming and could not believe I wanted to include a Hohner harmonica in my story. The Hohner family and company kept amazing artifacts from the inception of the company. And Mattais Hohner was a brilliant marketer. For every world event since the late 1800s there has been a commemorative harmonica. It was there in their museum that I first saw a glass case of harmonicas embedded with bullets that had saved soldiers lives along with letters from grateful family members, or the soldier himself, who had eventually returned the harmonica.
I had to research pre-WWII and understand the political dynamics of Hitler's rise.
For my research of Hoxie's band, I connected Michael Bowman who had done years of research on Hoxie and was joyous that I was interested. He sent me invaluable images and articles he had collected.
For Ivy Maria's story, I relied on much of the research I found about the Alvarez case, and the Mendez vs. Westminister case. For the Alvarez case I was able to read the actual court documents. I didn't use the Alvarez case specifically because the dates didn't align for my novel, but I read many actual accounts that were very similar to my character's . It was a common story during that time in California.
The reader isn't always sure the main characters will survive. But they all live. Why?
I wrote several different versions of the endings. In one, Friedrich's father had died by the time the concert took place in Carnegie Hall. In another version, Ivy's brother, Fernando, died. I tried on so many scenarios in my mind and on paper. But in the end, neither of those situations felt right for such high profile characters. There was already plenty of mention of death in the over-arching story. Friedrich's mother had died. Mike's mother and grandmother had died. Susan's brother had died. In each story, so much of the characters' struggles were about what they conquered together as a family. So losing one of the high profile characters, ultimately felt too tragic. And of course, one of the themes was finding a way through darkness and fear and obstacles. I became so invested in them that I wanted them to find their way.
What do you hope readers will take away from the story?
I hope the reader will see that music is a universal language. It is understood by the person speaking the language—the musician, as well as the person being spoken to—the listener. And what each hears is a different experience based on what they bring to each performance, their life experiences, their joys, their fears. And yet, it is the same piece of music. I think most people have had moments in their lives where music - a performance, a soundtrack, a choral performance, a singer - brought tears to his or her eyes from either the beauty of the performance, or the emotional resonance, or a memory it evokes. It is that commonality of experience with which people connect.