One day this spring, John Schumacher’s students entered Brook Forest Elementary School in Oak Brook, Illinois, to find what looked like a giant book party. Their teacher-librarian, whom they affectionately call “Mr. Schu,” had decked out the school in anticipation of a visit from Kate DiCamillo, beloved author (Because of Winn-Dixie, The Tale of Despereaux) and newly appointed National Ambassador for Young People’s Literature. Schumacher had set up signs throughout the school grounds announcing the author’s visit. In the library, there was a huge cake shaped like a book, stacks of DiCamillo’s latest book, Flora & Ulysses, waiting to be autographed, and stuffed animal displays dedicated to characters from her books.
You could say that every day is a giant book party for this librarian. In addition to his duties at the school, Schumacher, who recently served on the 2014 Newbery committee, maintains a popular blog and has developed a Twitter following of almost 17,000 book lovers. He spoke with us about libraries, books, and where summer reading will take him.
Q | How did you find your way into the library?
A | My first teaching job was in Seoul, South Korea, where I taught English for a year. It was an eye-opening experience that helped me develop into the teacher I am today. After returning to the U.S. and [filling in for] two long-term maternity leaves, I was hired as a third-grade teacher at Brook Forest. In the back of my mind, I really wanted to be a librarian, but there were few accredited programs in Illinois. After I got a master’s in teaching and leadership, I went right into library school.
I had this idea that librarians were still how they were when I was a kid. But, as you know, libraries have changed drastically. The more I learned about libraries, the more I knew it was the best fit for me. I’ve been at Brook Forest for 10 years now, half of my time in the classroom, half in the library. The library is the perfect place for me because it marries the two things I love most—books and technology.
Q | Tell us about author visits and how you make sure they’re successful.
A | We become experts on authors before they visit. I ideally like at least two months to prepare. During that time, we learn about the author’s craft and style, and we explore the author’s website. I also make sure I’ve shared at least one full novel with the whole group [of students] and that we’ve covered the author’s other books among groups of children.
The environment is also important. I go a little overboard with that—I advertise in the bathroom, in the hallways. I send out weekly e-mails to the students with interesting facts and tidbits about the author. I do whatever I can to make sure they know as much as possible. When that person walks in the room, the kids see the author as an actual person. During the visit, I’m very hands-off. The students run the entire show. They lead the introduction, questions, and conclusion. The students give all the directions for the book signing. It’s student centered. The author visits bring the school together. There’s this electricity afterward. We always do a debriefing, a metacognitive reflection where we talk about the strengths of the visit and what we got out of it. We always write thank-you notes to the author, too.
Q | Your blog (mrschureads.blogspot.com) and Twitter feed (@MrSchuReads) are always buzzing with the latest in children’s books. Why is it so important for you to maintain them?
A | When I have to be away from social media for a while, I feel like a part of me struggles a bit because I so badly want to share things with people. On Twitter, I have this whole community of like-minded teachers and librarians from all over the world who get the importance of children’s literature and keeping up with books and connecting with kids in unique ways. It’s the most valuable professional development I’ve ever had.
My blog is a wonderful place for me to share books that I love and books that my students love. I don’t believe in posting negative reviews. Anything that’s on my blog I endorse—books, websites that I believe in.
Q | Speaking of your blog, it features hundreds of videos from publishers called book trailers. How do you use them in your library?
A | I see students respond to watching them because it’s like watching a movie trailer. The trailers are the perfect way to hook kids who have a hard time selecting books. They can watch a few book trailers and then it’s easier for them to make a decision. So many of our kids are visual and auditory learners; the trailers bring the concept of the book, the excitement of the book to life for them. The ones that students have requested to watch over and over are for Wonder by R. J. Palacio, The One and Only Ivan by Katherine Applegate, and the Five Kingdoms series by Brendan Mull.
Q | What was it like to be on the Newbery committee? It can’t be easy to pick the single best piece of children’s literature of the year!
A | I was so honored to serve on the committee. It made me a stronger reader and a better evaluator. It allowed me to know a year of books better than I’ll probably ever know.
It was challenging going from being a very public reader to being a very private reader. My students were so helpful in giving me feedback about books. I always tell my students when I like a book and when I don’t like a book. I tell them that every book has its reader; just because I don’t like it doesn’t mean that you’re not going to like it. But during my Newbery year I didn’t do that. I didn’t want to give my opinion about books. Having kids involved and so aware that their librarian is on this national committee was the most special part.