An interview with John Schu
The Children’s Book Review
In this episode, I talk with the one and only John Schu about his debut picture book, This Is a School—a moving celebration of school and all it may signify.
John Schu is the creator of the popular blog Mr. Schu Reads, was the Ambassador of School Libraries for Scholastic Book Fairs, a part-time lecturer at Rutgers University, and a former classroom teacher and school librarian. He has visited schools worldwide and has met with over 130,000 students, teachers, and administrators as he advocates for the people and things he cares about most: kids, books, schools, and the libraries — and librarians — that connect them. John Schu lives in Naperville, Illinois.
Listen to the Interview
- About John Schu
- About This Is a School
- How school visits inspire John Schu
- Writing This Is a School
- The artwork of Veronica Miller Jamison
- The focus on community in This Is a School
- John Schu discusses his upcoming books and The Gift of Story
- The art of joy walking
- Does John Schu prefer being a teacher, librarian, or author?
- The books that John Schu read as a kid
Read the Interview
Bianca Schulze: Well, hello, John Schu. Welcome to the Growing Reader’s Podcast.
John Schu: Hello. Thank you so much for having me. I’m so excited to chat with you today.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, same here. Well, I’m going to start with a big congratulations because after so many years of you dedicating yourself to championing, championing the books of so many others, This Is a School has your name on it. I want to know how that feels.
John Schu: Oh, my goodness. It feels wonderful but sometimes strange because I’m so used to being in your shoes where I’m interviewing people about books, where I’m like, wait, this is my book. I’m focusing on it. And I think each time I talk about This Is a School; I become more comfortable in the role of author.
Bianca Schulze: Awesome!
I’m curious, was being an author something that you always wanted to be, or was the seed for writing a book planted during your experiences visiting schools all around the world?
John Schu: When I was little, like kindergarten, first grade, I had this big desk that I loved to work at, and I would always assign myself extra homework. And when I was in kindergarten in first grade, I would always assign myself to write my own stories. But what I would do is I would take my favorite books and I would just copy them. I wasn’t creating original work, but I was plagiarizing work, and it was really inspiring to me when I was in kindergarten and first grade. And then that feeling left me probably in second grade. It wasn’t until I was a school librarian that that seed of writing my own stories was once again planted.
Bianca Schulze: Okay. So, from all these experiences you’ve had, I mean, you’ve been to so many different schools, and I’m wondering if there’s something about those experiences that maybe guides you and drives you to be the author you’ve become now?
John Schu: Oh, yeah, most definitely. The school visits are always on my mind. I was lucky enough for 13 years to be an elementary school librarian and classroom teacher who had my own students. And when I left my school, it was sad to no longer have the same students every single day. But then I started doing school visits where I would get to go to Colorado and meet 2000 students throughout the week and then go to California and meet 2000 students throughout the week. And in all those situations, I was able to champion the books that I love and the authors I love.
It was through those school visits that I was inspired to write This Is a School, which is what we’re talking about today, and This Is a Story which is a picture book I have coming out in the year 2023. Both of those would not exist if it were not for the school visits that I did all over the world.
Bianca Schulze: All right. So, we all need to know the quintessential question of what specific moment inspired This Is a School.
John Schu: This Is a School is a companion to This Is a Story. So, I wrote This Is a Story in the year 2017, and I wrote This Is a School in the year 2019. This Is a School has a similar structure to This Is a Story. When I sat down to write This Is a School, it was really interesting to take my own story and use it as a mentor text because the structure is the same. And so, the first sentence of This Is a Story is: This is a word. And the first sentence of This Is a School is: This as a kid. And so, like, I knew immediately what the first line of This Is a School was because of the first line of This Is a Story, if that makes sense.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s so fun.
John Schu: It was fun to be like: I created a structure that I follow.
Bianca Schulze: And so how did that happen? So, you wrote This Is a Story first, but This Is a School came out first. So how did that all happen?
John Schu: It was all scheduling. So, Lauren Castillo is illustrating This Is a Story, and she had many, many, many, many projects before that. And originally, it was going to come out in 2022 and it was going to be the first book. As you know, in publishing, things change all the time. And so, thankfully, Veronica was able to take on This Is a School right away, making it my debut picture book.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s so fun. Since you just brought up Veronica, let’s talk about Veronica Miller Jamison’s artwork.
John Schu: Oh, yes. Oh, it’s so beautiful and inspiring.
Bianca Schulze: I read that she created the illustrations using watercolor, acrylic paint, and digital collage. And I love the texture and the color palette, and in particular, I love the diversity of the people that her artwork shows. So just talk to me about your feelings and thoughts on her artwork.
John Schu: Oh, yeah, her artwork, as you just said, you just summed it up so beautifully. Her artwork is joyful. It’s warm. It brings to life these abstract concepts that I wrote, in such a beautiful and exquisite way.
Because I’ve been involved in children’s publishing for a long time, working at Scholastic for six years, so I was familiar with a lot of behind-the-scenes things and then having my blog for so many years of revealing covers and original art. But I wasn’t quite prepared for what it felt like for Karen Lotz, the editor of This Is a School to send me sketches and then to send me the final artwork. And every time I would open an email from Karen Lotz, it was this big, beautiful gift that was Veronica Miller Jamison’s art.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I mean, just that feeling of seeing it for the first time must have been incredible. I’m sure there was some seriously great satisfaction when you first held a finished copy of the book in your hand. So, I’m curious about what the writing and publishing process looked like for you. Do you want to share a little bit about the process?
John Schu: Yeah. So, I’m going to talk about what you said about receiving a copy for the first time. I recently received a copy for the first time, and I was so emotional. I did not expect to be so emotional. I stood in the middle of my kitchen weeping, like tears were just flowing out of me because the PDF of the book is beautiful. But the finished copy is extraordinarily beautiful. The font choices and the texture of the paper. And when you take off the dust jacket, there’s a poster on the reverse side and all the details that I didn’t see in the PDF or via the emails that I was able to take in.
I really love the design elements of picture books and spend a lot of time working with kids and adults, showing them how to truly appreciate every piece of a picture book and the anatomy of a picture book. And to experience it with my own picture book was really, really overwhelming.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, I bet. The poster—that’s such a cool feature of the book just to pull that out.
John Schu: Yeah, it was like an author bucket list item. One of my favorite picture books is All Are Welcome; when you take off that dust jacket, there’s also this big poster moment.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, that’s so fun that you got to have that in this book.
So, what about the writing? You had written This Is a Story and you kind of had this the model of how you would create This Is a School. So, from the idea of This Is a School to holding that book, what happened between?
John Schu: Yeah. The writing process for This Is a School was so much fun.
I’m a very, very visual person and do lots of presentations where I create PowerPoints and visuals that have very few words but are guided by imagery. And so, when I was writing This Is a School, I compiled a PowerPoint presentation of the various things that I’ve talked to adults and students about throughout the previous four years. And I pulled a collection of photographs of schools that I visited. I looked at them, studied the images, and studied what I’ve been sharing with people over the last four years, the previous four years to writing the book. At the time, I was also writing a professional book called The Gift of Story. I was thinking a lot about a framework that I created while writing The Gift of Story.
I took all those things, the PowerPoints, and the imagery and messages I share during school visits, and I wrote a poem based on that. And it’s been interesting to have two people who have read This Is a School and reconstructed the way the original poem looked. And they almost both got it exactly correct. Because This Is a School is a nine-stanza poem that has been broken apart, that sounds like poetry, I think still. But it doesn’t look like a poem.
Bianca Schulze: I know from following you on social media that you’re a massive theater fan. There’s a fun theater scene in This Is a School that showcases the students and grownups all coming together because a big theme of this book is community. So, do you want to talk a little bit about this theater scene and its importance?
John Schu: Yeah. Oh, I love it so much. I felt strange telling Veronica Miller Jamison that I have a favorite spread in the book because I love all the spreads. But I shared with Veronica that the theater spread spoke to my heart and soul because theater and children’s literature are my two biggest passions. And Veronica’s response was, “actually, that’s my favorite scene, too.” So, it’s been so fun talking to her about it.
So, yeah, the theater scene shows a community at work. It shows the community coming together. You can feel the energy and the light from the stage. You can really see the delineation of each character because each character is taking on a role of a character that you can kind of see in their personalities as well throughout the story. And I feel that it’s that big page turn moment where you see all of them together on the stage, about to go out and perform.
Bianca Schulze: Sometimes you talk to kids and it’s like they don’t really like school, they don’t really love school. Your book shows all the wonderful things about school and the joy that it can bring. And on that particular spread, I love the little girl in the giraffe costume putting on the little girl’s makeup in the lobster costume. This is so cute. There’s just there’s so much to take in.
John Schu: Veronica hid a lot of Easter eggs throughout and I’m still finding them.
But yeah, that is my favorite moment where the two, the giraffe and the lobster, are helping each other. And then the art teacher being involved, and the librarian being involved. I really wanted This Is a School to be an ode to every single person in this school. You know, not only the classroom teacher but the secretary and the custodian and the art teacher and the music teacher and the librarian. And I think Veronica miller Jamison did such a nice job of balancing the different roles throughout the story, where a lot of times, school stories are really focused on the classroom experience and not all the special area experiences.
Bianca Schulze: I want to say, besides the theater scene, that my second favorite part of the book was the inclusion of the custodian.
John Schu: On the cover.
Bianca Schulze: My kids love the custodian at our school. They think he’s the greatest. And I feel like, at the end of the school year, the teachers do get credit, and everybody often at our school pitches in and gives gifts to the teacher. And I often think we forget about all the special teachers and custodians. So, I love that your book reminded everybody or just, you know, it brings everybody together because everybody plays a part in making the school run well.
John Schu: It was so special to me personally because I had a lot of anxiety in elementary school. And one of the scenes that Veronica brought from my life that she didn’t know she was bringing from my life is the scene where the boy has a lot of anxiety over math. You can see all the kids are really excited, and they’re raising their hands, and they all look like they know the answers. And there’s a boy that looks stuck. But then his teacher helps him, and his teacher guides him.
But when I was a kid, the person who really helped me was the custodian. And when I was in third grade and fourth grade, I had the special job where I got to help the custodian clean up after lunch. And it was like such a bright spot in my day. And I’m sure perhaps there was someone in the school that knew like I had anxiety at recess, or there was something that didn’t always go right at recess. And so, the custodian was a good person to help me, guide me, and give me tasks to do. And then, in the summers, I would go to my custodian’s house, and I would help his wife in the garden.
I honestly forgot about all of this until you mentioned the custodian. So, thank you for giving me new material to talk about with students.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, my gosh. That’s so cool. Maybe somebody just needs to create a picture book, The Custodian. I think that would be awesome.
John Schu: Oh, my goodness. Honestly, I forgot all about that.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah. I mean, you could turn that into a wonderful picture book. I could totally see that.
John Schu: Oh, thank you.
Bianca Schulze: So, I think you kind of touched on this a little bit already, but it is important to note that while this is your first released book for children, it’s not your only published book because you wrote an incredibly handy book for grownups, The Gift of Story: Exploring the Affective Side of the Reading Life. Some of our listeners probably already know about this book, but I would love for you to tell our listeners about it, especially our teacher and librarian friends.
John Schu: Yeah. So, I say The Gift of Story is the professional book of my heart. The book I never thought I would finish writing, but I finished it, and it’s coming out.
The Gift of Story is all about sharing your heart through story. And in the first chapter of the book, I define what that means to share your heart through story. And the way that I define that is that when you share your heart through story, it’s where the academic elements of story, which is what a lot of people focus on in classrooms and through instruction, it’s where the academic elements of story overlap with the affective elements of story. And so, I wrote an entire book about the heart, and in each chapter, it explores a different affective element of story, and I’ll share them very, very fast.
So, the first affective element of story is story as healer, how stories help us heal our hearts. Story as inspiration, how story inspires us. Story as clarifier about how story can help us make sense of things going on in our own lives as well as in other people’s lives. That story can help us make sense of really, really complicated things. Story as compassion about how story can make us more compassionate people. And then finally, what is a thread in all the stories that I write, which is story as connection about how reading aloud stories and writing stories and sharing stories can connect all of us.
So, it’s really like it’s a John Schu presentation in book form.
Bianca Schulze: That’s awesome. I know because it’d be so great if you could visit every single school and group of students and teachers, but it’s just not possible. But it is possible through this book, which is amazing.
John Schu: And that’s so interesting that you say that because I didn’t think I would talk to students about the gift of story, but it’s become such a big chapter in my student presentations. I realized through talking to students about it that I really wrote it for them, right?
I mean, their teachers are going to read it. It’s not a book a third grader would read, but they were always my guiding light when I was writing it. I was always thinking about my former students and what would be best for them and what I wished for them—and talking to students about it, particularly seventh and eighth graders, really, really resonates. And it leads to important conversations after the presentation where seventh and eighth graders are opening up about their own lives because of the affective elements of story. So that was a really big surprise.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, yeah, that’s incredible. What a gift just for you to know that you’re, you know, reaching so many people and just bringing this love and joy of story that both you and I know is incredible. So, yeah, what a gift. I love that that’s the title, The Gift of Story. And it is a gift.
So, we know that we have something else fun to look forward to from you, which is This Is a Story, but are there any other fun projects you’re working on?
John Schu: Yeah, they’re all public now. As you know, publishing has so many secrets. Where I was telling students, well, I have this book that I wrote that I couldn’t talk about and this one, but I can.
So, This Is a Story is coming out in spring 2023, illustrated by Caldecott Honor artist Lauren Castillo. And then, in the fall of 2023, my debut middle grade book called Louder Than Hunger is coming out, which is based on my own experiences in eighth and ninth grade. And it really is the story of my heart. I said The Gift of Story is the professional book of my heart. This is the absolutely true story of my heart. And then I have a picture book coming out in spring 2024 called The Poetry Place Is Our Space, and Holly Hatam is illustrating it.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, I love Holly Hatam.
John Schu: Oh, me too.
Bianca Schulze: That’s so wonderful. All right. I also love learning about the day-to-day practices of busy, creative people. So, I know that something that you like to do is joy walking. Will you share the what’s, whys, and how’s of joy walking with us?
John Schu: Oh, I would love to. Every book that I’ve tried to write up to this point has been attempting to write a joy walking book. And so, it’s been really, really good to me. And eventually, I will write a children’s book about joy walking.
But this is what I do every day before I write—if possible, with the weather—I go outside and disconnect. I put my phone in airplane mode and I’m just one with nature. I go on a walk where I keep my heart open and my ears open and I’m really present with myself. And it’s almost like a moment of when people who do yoga or do meditation, I do it outside and it’s how I prepare myself mentally for writing. And then I come in the house, I sit down and because now my heart is open and my ears are open and I am open, I’m able to write truthfully.
It’s my favorite part of the writing process. And if ever I don’t have the time, like, oh, I can’t go on a joy walk, I really struggle with writing. So walking is my therapy and walking is what inspires me.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, that’s beautiful. You use it for your writing but doing that before anything big you have going on in your life would be so beneficial. Thanks for sharing that.
John Schu: Oh, no, thank you. I’m working on a joy walking book right now.
Bianca Schu: I love it. Now, I’m curious, do you have a specific path that you walk? Like, do you walk the same walk every time?
John Schu: Well, before the pandemic, I used to travel 220 days a year. And so, the view of my walk was so different every single day, and now I’m starting to travel again. And so, I do enjoy that. The view is different, but I walk around my neighborhood, which is not as exciting as, you know, being in a different town every day. But I change it up. But mostly, it’s like this loop that I do around my neighborhood.
Bianca Schulze: All right. Well, I have a kiddo question for you. Let me just line it up.
Young Reader: Now that you’re an author, I’m wondering what your favorite job was. A teacher, an author, or a librarian?
John Schu: Oh, that was so amazing. Thank you for that wonderful question. I love them all. They’re all a piece of who I am, but I feel most at home, most at ease, and most excited when I’m in a school library. It’s where I feel the love of story the most. It’s where I get to talk to students like you about books that you love and books that I love. So, although I love every single role that you just named, my favorite is school librarian.
Bianca Schulze: Oh, okay. Well, now here’s a question that I ask everyone, and I’m sure you’ve been asked this question a bunch. So, they say you need to be a reader first to be a writer. Well, first, do you agree with that statement? And if so, was there a specific book that (or maybe two) that you feel turned you into a reader?
John Schu: Yeah, absolutely. You have to be a reader in order to be a writer, and a writer to be a reader; I know the great Kate DiCamillo says that all the time.
But there are actually two books. So, I am a reader today because of a book called Goofy’s Big Race. And it was a book that I bought at the grocery store in the year 1986 and I had, as a kid, the full collection of the books from the grocery store, and it was a book that my grandma read aloud to me all the time. And Goofy’s Big Race almost is like a character in my book Louder Than Hunger. The character his name is Jake. He thinks about the book Goofy’s Big Race a lot, especially his grandma reading it aloud to him.
And then the second book that made me a reader was the novelization of one of my favorite Disney movies called Oliver and Company. So, I am a reader because of media properties.
Bianca Schulze: I love it, I love it. I know I feel like these kinds of books get discounted. I have my favorite saying is that not every book is for every child, but for every child, there is a book. And yeah, you know, like all this book banning and everything, it just drives me crazy. I mean, we need to let the kids read the books that speak to them. And, you know, if it’s a book with Goofy from Disney like that’s the book. Read it.
John Schu: And because of that, I do a whole segment in my presentations with kids because when I’m talking to kids, I’m also doing professional development for teachers at the same time.
I’m able to say things that maybe sometimes the librarian doesn’t feel comfortable saying. So, because of what you just said, I bring up a photo of me when I was in kindergarten and say my favorite book was Goofy’s Big Race and then second grade Oliver and Company, in third-grade Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, and fourth grade He-Man and She-Ra. And it’s my way to say I was a kid that would read any book if it was based on a movie based on a TV show. And I talked to students about how I think that’s because they were familiar characters and there was safety in that.
So, I love talking to students about that. But really, I love those adults are hearing that message of if a child wants to read a book about Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, let them. Get out of the way.
Bianca Schulze: Yeah, yeah, exactly. Get out of the way. I love that phrase. I don’t know which episode it was. Somebody else just said that. I wish I could say who it was, but I feel like this is the phrase that all of us book people need to just like, repeat, repeat, repeat, just get out of the way. Just get out of the way.
All right. Well, John, before we go, I want to know your hopes for when a reader reaches the final page of This Is a School.
John Schu: I hope it’s a book that makes students smile when they get to the end. I hope that they see themselves throughout the story, and I hope that they feel a little bit more connected because of the story. And I hope it’s a story that kids want to go back and pore over the illustrations because there are so many Easter eggs, and there are so many things that I think you miss unless you read it slowly and take in each spread. So, but most importantly, I hope it makes kids smile.
Bianca Schulze: I think it absolutely will. And there absolutely can never be enough books and conversations about community and connection. And I just think the world is so lucky to have you in it, John, spreading the importance of reading aloud and the joys of sharing stories from the heart. So, thank you so much for writing This Is a School and for sharing your time with us today.
John Schu: Oh no, thank you so much. This has been so much fun and thank you for all you do to connect readers and writers and, most importantly, children.
Bianca Schulze: Thank you, John.
John Schu: Thank you.
About the Book
Written by John Schu
Illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison
Ages 4-8 | 40 Pages
Publisher: Candlewick | ISBN-13: 978-1536204582
Publisher’s Synopsis: A moving celebration of school and all it may signify: work and play, creativity and trust, and a supportive community that extends beyond walls
A school isn’t just a building; it is all the people who work and learn together. It is a place for discovery and asking questions. A place for sharing, for helping, and for community. It is a place of hope and healing, even when that community can’t be together in the same room. John Schu, a librarian and former ambassador of school libraries for Scholastic, crafts a loving letter to schools and the people that make up the communities within in a picture book debut beautifully illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison.
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All Are Welcome by Alexandra Penfold
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