John Schu has a gift for story, and he wants to share it with EVERYONE he meets. This past week, I attended one of John’s professional development workshops sponsored by Rutgers University Center for Literacy Development directed by Dr. Lesley Morrow, my former professor and mentor at the Graduate School of Education. Throughout the hour, John drew us in and told us his story through the books he’s read. His mission is to connect readers to stories that will affect and change their lives.
John believes that stories save lives, and he proved it by telling us his life story, weaving events in his childhood to the books that helped him heal and grow. He was a shy boy, a boy who loved musical theater, a boy who loved to play school complete with his own grade and roll book, chalk, and red pens. With his imaginary class he could exert control and have some power over his world.
As he recounted his story, he gave vivid book talks about both current books and old favorites. His generosity is amazing, and he graciously gifted many books to his audience. John has developed what he coins as “the smell test,” because he loves the smell of books. He rates books using “the smell test,” and makes us laugh. Books that get high ratings on “the smell test,” have the capacity to touch one’s heart. Tiger Rising was that kind of book for John, and it led to a strong friendship with its author, Kate DiCamillo. John describes Kate as someone with a “capacious” heart, a term Kate used in her novel, Flora and Ulysses: The Illuminated Adventure to describe a person who is open-hearted, a person who can connect, empathize and heal. Periodically throughout the workshop, John had us chant Kate’s name. What a wonderful homage to a devoted friend. Good friends like good books are invaluable.
As we got to know John, he opened up more and more about why he became a teacher, a school librarian, then a school library ambassador, and then an author. He was funny and energetic and made us laugh; he was poignant and vulnerable and made us cry. What John conveyed in his workshop is what a book does every time a reader opens the cover and turns a page. Story is indeed important.
John had two teachers who served as reading role models. One was Dr. Mary Margaret Reed, who was his 5th grade teacher. She was exuberant and eccentric and a reader. She knew how to entice children to read, especially a shy boy who needed some friends and some healing. John writes about Dr. Reed in The Creativity Project, which was edited by Colby Sharp. In the book, John wrote a letter to Dr. Reed expressing his admiration and confessing that he stole her copy of Matilda by Roald Dahl because he so greatly needed that book. He still has that copy of Matilda. Another reading role model came to John when he was in college. Her name was Dr. Penny Britton Kolloff. John was eager to become a teacher, and he worked so hard to do his best – maybe too hard. Dr. Kolloff recognized this, and she told John that to be a teacher one must learn self-care as she put a copy of A Fine, Fine School by Sharon Creech in his hands. John keeps a copy of the book displayed wherever he’s worked to remind him to keep in the forefront of his mind personal well-being.
At one point, John asked us our definition of story. I wrote: Story is like breathing in and out. I could not live without story. And when children tell me they hate reading, I remind them that they LOVE stories – and they agree. I remember when I was tutoring dyslexic children, and they would get discouraged because reading was so hard for them. It was such long, hard, and tedious work. They would tire and feel disappointed with themselves. I found ways to encourage them. I would empathize with them that reading was indeed difficult, but I would also remind them that they LOVED stories. They would nod their head and agree. Then, I would read aloud to them to help them energize and enter a story. After I read for a while, we would stop and share our thoughts and have deep conversations about characters, events, and make predictions about what might happen next. It was that anticipation that kept them going. They needed to know what was going to happen next.
John told us a great story about the anticipatory joy that reading brings. He recounted a time when he got a book in the mail and be became so absorbed in it that he spent the day taking the book with him to his living room chair, over to the refrigerator, back to the chair, then into the bathroom, then back to the chair and round and round again and again until he had only five pages left. That’s when a monumental decision loomed: finish the book or make it last a little longer. As avid readers we do not want the story to end. So John decided to go to sleep with the five pages unread. Of course, he tossed and turned in bed. He needed to know the ending of this now beloved story. He got up, went downstairs, sat in his comfy chair, and read the ending, tears flowing down his face. The story was complete. The book? The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate. The story had changed him like all good stories do. John spent a lot of time telling everyone he could about The One and Only Ivan. It was a treasure he wanted to share. He even got a chance to meet Ivan and have Ivan autograph his copy of the book, by signing with his thumbprint in green.
This day with John was well spent. I now have a longer list of books to read, I have a box full of books from Amazon on their way, I have a renewed love of story, and I have found a kindred spirit and book whisperer extraordinaire.
Books by Mr. Schu
- The Gift of Story: Explore the Affective Side of the Reading Life (2022)
- This is a School (2022)
- This is a Story (2023)
- Louder Than Hunger (2024)
Connect with Mr. Schu
Some of the Books that Pass Mr. Schu’s Smell Test
- A First Time for Everything by Dan Santant
- A Rover’s Story by Jasmine Warga
- Courage Hats by Kate Hoefler
- Freewater by Amina Luqman-Dawson
- Hidden Truths by Elly Swartz
- Never Forget Eleanor by Jason June
- Nigel and the Moon by Antwan Eady
- Proud Mouse by Idina Menzel