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Louder Than Hunger by John Schu

John Schu shares Louder Than Hunger (Candlewick Press), a wrenching and transformative novel-in-verse that explores anorexia--and self-expression as an act of survival.


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About the book: Louder Than Hunger by John Schu. Published by Candlewick Press.



Revered teacher, librarian, and story ambassador John Schu explores anorexia--and self-expression as an act of survival--in a wrenching and transformative novel-in-verse.


But another voice inside me says,


We need help.


We're going to die.


Jake volunteers at a nursing home because he likes helping people. He likes skating and singing, playing Bingo and Name That Tune, and reading mysteries and comics aloud to his teachers. He also likes avoiding people his own age . . . and the cruelty of mirrors . . . and food. Jake has read about kids like him in books--the weird one, the outsider--and would do anything not to be that kid, including shrink himself down to nothing. But the less he eats, the bigger he feels. How long can Jake punish himself before he truly disappears? A fictionalized account of the author's experiences and emotions living in residential treatment facilities as a young teen with an eating disorder, Louder than Hunger is a triumph of raw honesty. With a deeply personal afterword for context, this much-anticipated verse novel is a powerful model for muffling the destructive voices inside, managing and articulating pain, and embracing self-acceptance, support, and love.



Episode Transcript:


INTRO


Matthew: Welcome to the Children’s Book Podcast. I’m Matthew.


I am a teacher, a librarian, a writer, and a fan of kids. 


I’ve been sitting at my computer now for nearly 45 minutes trying to figure out the best way to start this introduction, but the truth is that I think I just need to let the conversation speak for itself.


Today John Schu returns to the podcast.


We spent time in conversation over Louder Than Hunger (Candlewick Press), a wrenching and transformative novel-in-verse that explores anorexia--and self-expression as an act of survival.


I listened to Louder Than Hunger as an audiobook, which was an exceptional and moving experience, but also a very, very different way to read a novel-in-verse, I would imagine. My print copy arrived in the mail today an, leafing through it, I can already tell that Jake’s voice, the protagonist, is going to speak differently in this format and I cannot wait to feel how the design and white space help to direct the reader’s print experience.


Penguin Random House Audio provided a clip from the audiobook that you’ll hear shortly into the interview. 


Let’s step into my conversation with John Schu. Ready? Here we go.



INTERVIEW


John: So hi, I'm John Schu, and I am the author of Louder Than Hunger. And I am a teacher, librarian, and a reader, and a librarian, and I'm so grateful to be here today to talk to you, Matthew. 


Matthew: Congratulations on your first novel being published, John. And, um, what a novel it was. I found it, um, immediately vulnerable and almost, almost immediately, I felt like, I know this is a fictionalized story, but I know to write something like this requires a lot of truth and a lot of, a lot of a journey, a lot of lived life to write it.

So thank you for committing yourself to sharing this story with everyone. 


John: Oh, thank you. And thank you for listening to it. I love that you listened to the audiobook.


Matthew: I think that, yeah, Jeff Ebner, we were talking before recording, did such a wonderful job, uh, interpreting your text, uh, bringing to life your text, bringing to life Jake's story, uh, and Jake's voice.


I wonder for you, if you don't mind first just telling us, book talking for us, if you will, louder than hunger. And then I'd like to get into, uh, the moment when you first met. Jake and how Jake came onto the page for you. But first a book talk, please. 


John: Oh, I love because I love book talking from my heart.


It's my favorite thing to do. And it's easier though sometimes to book talk other people's books than your own book. But Louder Than Hunger takes place in 1996. And I love that it takes place in 1996 because my story, my time that I experienced the things in the books would have been during those years.


And in the beginning I thought maybe I would write it in present day, but I really needed to go back to the 90s and 80s in order to tell this story in a way that helped me heal myself. So, the main character's name is Jake Edward Stacy, and my legal name is John Edward Schumacher. So Jake and I have the same initials, and I knew right away that I didn't want to write a memoir, but I wanted us to have the same initials, because almost everything that Jake experiences throughout the book, I experienced myself, and every emotion that Jake has in the story, I have had at one time in my own life.


So you meet Jake in 1996, and you know right away that his favorite subject is language arts, and his favorite movie is Home Alone, and he loves The Giver by Lois Lowry, and he loves rollerblading, and he cannot wait to one day to see a musical on Broadway with his grandma. And in the beginning where he's filling in what his favorite movie is and what his favorite book is, there's a spot for him to put his favorite food, and Jake leaves that blank.


And we know right away that this story probably involves food in some way, or lack thereof of food in some way. And so you meet Jake when he's really spiraling out of the out of control in November of his eighth grade year, and there is a voice, there's an inner saboteur inside of him that tells him that he's repulsive and tells him that he's a miserable human being and that he doesn't deserve food.


And Jake feels really, really torn because he knows that he needs help, but he knows that if he asks for help, the voice will be really, really angry. 


EXCERPT


“The Voice” excerpt from the audiobook adaptation of Louder Than Hunger from Penguin Random House Audio.



INTERVIEW (CONTINUED)


John: Thankfully, Jake volunteers every day at a nursing home. And when I was in middle school, I volunteered every day at a nursing home. And there was a resident who I read to every single day who was legally blind.


And she loved to be read aloud to because it always brought her back to her time when she was a fourth grade teacher. And I would spend so much time in her room. I named her Miss Burns in the book. And I honestly cannot remember what her name was. Her real name was, but I spent a lot of time with her and one day she started crying because she knew there was something wrong with me.


And she arranges. And in the book, she actually calls Jake's mom. But in real life, the director of the nursing home called my mom and said, there is something wrong and you probably should take your son to the, to the doctor. And at the time, my mom and Jake's mom in the book, it's hard. Because as you see, I go back and forth between saying Jake and myself, but I feel comfortable enough to tell, like, the actual truth right now.


My mom, my mom was going through so much, you know, she had just gotten divorced, and my mom was, my mom is bipolar, and my mom's anxiety was really bad at the time, and so she was dealing with so much that I think it was hard for her to take on what I was dealing with. going through, but she knew, but it would just add one more thing to my mom's plate.


So anyway, thanks to that intervention, Jake and John ended up going to a facility that in the book I call Whispering Pines. And the reason I call it Whispering Pines is because I was in a facility called Linden Oaks. So I wanted it to sound a little bit like Linden Oaks. And then as a child and still as an adult, one of my favorite shows is the Golden Girls.

And Sophia's often threatened with being sent to Shady Pines. And so, because it's a tough topic to write about, I needed that humor for myself, but it made me think of Sophia all of the time. So anyway, Jake goes to Whispering Pines and he doesn't want to be there. And he says he doesn't need to be there, even though we know that he knows that he needs to be there.


And eventually he is diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression and anxiety. And the reader spends almost a year with Jake when he's in the hospital. And people who read it knowing that the story's based on me, they know that Jake is okay now. And I think they know that the thing that helps Jake and the thing that helps me heal was libraries and stories.


But most importantly for me it was music. Music is such an important part of my life and through this book, I'm able to talk more about the power and the importance of music in my own life. And we see through Jake's therapy and through his friendship with a character named Kelleah, that music really starts to help him find his place in the world.


So that was a very long book talk. So I would never win the 30 second book talk. 


Matthew: Oh, John, I'm here for it. We, I have a lot of questions that came up, but I think I want to start with them. Some details that you already know about the story that I'm also gonna bring in with you for people listening as well because you and I have known each other for a long time and One of my favorite quotes that has driven how I have walked through education is from Into the Woods Jake's favorite musical Sondheim wrote, “Careful the things you say; children will listen.” 


Yeah. And, um, and I like so much knowing, as I was starting out this book, knowing that it was fictionalized, but knowing, oh, I, I've followed John plenty of years on Instagram to know there's another Broadway show going or. This is the, I think recently you posted this, the eighth time I got to see this show.


John: Well, actually the eighth is a good number because I saw Into the Woods eight, the recent revival of Into the Woods, I saw eight times on Broadway. And in the first two drafts of Louder Than Hunger, Into the Woods was not a part of it, but I was seeing it so much. I mean, it is one of my favorite musicals and I was listening to it so much.


And I always have a notebook on my lap when I see it. because again, musicals inspire me always as a human being, but especially as a writer that I always have sparks of inspiration. And I think the person sitting next to me always thinks I'm a reviewer of musicals in some way. But it was actually, It was maybe the sixth time that I had seen it and I was seeing it so much because I love Sarah Bareilles.


I saw Waitress on Broadway 38 times, mostly because of Sarah Bareilles. But I remember writing my notebook thinking something like, oh my goodness, Jake is lost in the woods of his mind and I was lost in the woods. In the woods of my mind for a lot of my childhood and adolescence, and he's in a place called Whispering Pines, which goes so well with Into the Woods.


I did not plan that. It was because of how much I, I saw it and how much I think the story. of Into the Woods started to seep into the, into Jake's story. So, yeah. 


Matthew: That's, Elizabeth Gilbert would call that big magic, right? Yeah, it really was. 


John: I remember leaving the theater going right back to my room and being like, okay, I've got to write Into the Woods into this manuscript now.


Matthew: John, in what, in what I've written too, and I want to, In what I've written too, I've noticed that there are times when the pre writing looks like living life and allowing the universe to have a hand that sweeps and connects things if only we're willing to listen to it and be moved by it, right? I wonder for you, how long you have felt interested in or compelled to tell this story, whether it was in whatever form, maybe you, you've perhaps imagined it as an autobiography or as a memoir.


And no, let's fictionalize it. Walk me into where, where you first thought though, this, this is a story, even that I feel compelled to share with anyone. Yeah. So the 


John: story of Having anorexia and obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety was a really big part of my life when I really started on the path to recovery.

And I would be invited to, I don't know if you have these where you live in Maryland, but where I live in Illinois, there's an organization called Snowball and Snowfield. And it was actually president of Snowball when I was in high school and Snowball is an organization for kids that pledged not to drink alcohol before the age of 21 and not to do drugs and they have a retreat every year where inspirational speakers come in and you learn lots of camp songs and you put on a play and it's just like a community of people who usually you would find in musical theater as well.


And there is an overlap like they were just like. I don't want to use the word quirky in any way, but they were the kids in the district who didn't always feel like they had a place in a lot of the activities and they found their home through Snowball. And so people like me who became really, really involved in Snowball would then go to the junior highs and do Snowflake.


And so you would be like talking to the 6th graders about. You know, never take drugs and don't drink alcohol and advice for living your life, you know, in a, in a positive way. And so I would often go to middle schools when I was in high school and early college and talk about anorexia nervosa. And it was becoming though, such a bigger part of my identity than I wanted it to be anymore.


And so I had to say to myself in that moment, when I was probably a sophomore in college, I'm never going to talk about this again. Like, I'm going to just live my life now, not telling people that I was the kid that went on Oprah Winfrey when he was 14 years old. And you probably saw him cause you know, not you, but at that time I would jog people's memories and they'd be like, Oh, that's me.


Oh, yeah, I remember you. I remember you when you were on Oprah and it was, it was getting in the way of me moving forward. I've never articulated this out loud in an interview, so I'm hoping it's making sense. It is. So I was doing a lot of work to try to like help people who maybe were vulnerable, but then.


It was becoming too much a part of who I was when I was ready. You were living in your story, John. Yeah, I didn't want to be John Schumacher that people knew as the kid with an eating disorder, you know. And so I moved forward. And then as I got older and older and older and started to write, you know, this is a school and this is a story.


And I have another picture book that will be coming out next year that I wrote before Louder Than Hunger. And then I wrote a book called The Gift of Story. And when I was writing the gift of story, I realized that it was now time for me to tell the story of my childhood and the story of middle school and then going into high school, but that I couldn't have it be John Shue or John Schumacher's full story.


And I do think Matthew, some of it was, I was afraid if I used my own name. that it might be more challenging to write about certain things. And then two, I think maybe I was aware of, I didn't want it to become my whole story, my whole identity, because I think I was a little bit worried about. Wouldn't you?


Yeah, of how I, I don't think, I think I'm strong and I wouldn't go back, but I remember the moment that I decided like this wasn't going to always be. what I led with when people met me. And I think through writing The Gift of Story, I realized why I've always been the way I am when I'm working with kids, and why I do so many school visits, and why during every school visit I give away 20 to 40 books, and why I look for really specific kids to give those books to, and why I always give away notebooks during school visits, because I'm always looking for the little Jakes and the little Matthews of the world who need somebody to see them in that moment and to look into their eyes and to look into their heart and to acknowledge them because I so so badly needed that when I was a kid and it's not being a savior in any way but it's just being aware of the path that we can go on when we feel completely stuck and alone.


Matthew: John, the, may I share, if you don't mind, I think we all have to really be careful navigating as I hear you having that care, is my story, am I using my story in a way that centers me or am I using it that centers other people, right? And I think that so many of us who have experienced childhood trauma, myself included, Those of us that enter into that space of working with children often are doing repair work, or at least I can speak for me.


I am doing repair work on myself and on young child, Matthew, as well as helping to build that relationship. To create safe space for those kids. It's, it can't ever just be one direction. You're working back toward yourself as well. So that, that makes, that makes sense to me. Its something I, I, I connect with, with you mean.


This is, I feel like we all, um, we all in this group of friends that you and I sort of run with or have connections with, I have to feel again in the way the. the universe moves its hand that we, the thing that draws, I, I never knew this about you, John, but there was something though about the way that this story, Louder Than Hunger, the basis of the story, I didn't know about you.

We haven't ever had that conversation. Um, there's a way that you engage with not just children, but with other people, the way you've engaged with me, that I think, um, has been with tremendous care and love. And I appreciate that knowing you. What I now know through reading this book and knowing about Jake, I appreciate that you gave Jake, um, the tools to love himself and care for himself.



And I feel like that has to be something written from a place of, of, of, of doing the work and knowing. Well, 


John: it was, and I like that you used the word care. Um, I was hesitant to write this story because of my own experiences with stories like it. So when I was in the seventh grade, I was pretty certain that I had an eating disorder, and I was a kid who loved the library, and I was a kid who liked to clarify things.


Like, I love, I probably love to do research more in seventh grade than I do now, but I, I vividly remember, and there's a poem inspired by it in Louder Than Hunger, where I went to the Tinley Park Public Library and I found a library carol that was away from everything, and this is before I had AOL at home, uh, which I, or Prodigy, I think we had Prodigy first, and then AOL, uh, Dial Up, um, where, like, you would, you know, I went to the library and I found, um, an isolated library carol.


And I remember looking up terms like bulimia and anorexia and eating disorders, and it led me to really toxic things. It led me to some things I won't even, I will never name in interviews because I wouldn't want to lead people to that, but it led me to people like Tracy Gold, you know, who was battling an eating disorder in the nineties.


And it led me to Karen Carpenter and it led me to gymnast and it led me to that were so So horrible for me and high in sight, but in the moment they felt so valuable to me because they were how to manuals. And through reading those books, they taught me behaviors and they taught me things to do to become better at my eating disorder.


And in Louder Than Hunger, I was always aware while writing it that I can't put something in here. One, because that would be horrible. But two, there are going to be kids that are going to go to the library, or now they have it on their phone, and I don't want them to be led to a book like Louder Than Hunger that then just teaches them how to be better at their eating disorder.


It's why I never mention how much Jake weighs in the book. I'm really protective of his weight. And when certain people, when people who had read early drafts of it, asked me to include those things, I knew they weren't the right person for the book, because that would just be creating a how to manual.


And so I really, I was taking care of all of the future kids who will read this, but I was also taking care of myself. I was taking care of childhood me, who I think, could have changed course if I had had a book like, like Louder Than Hunger, which is hard to say because it sounds vain, but, but yeah. 


Matthew: No, but it, it also echoes that statement I just gave you, John, which is we do the work in ourselves and out to others. So I'm, I'm sure writing louder than hunger. I know from your author's note was work, was therapeutic, was the definition of therapeutic, that it required you to care and love, but to be vulnerable and to, to go through it. I wonder, um, what, what felt in writing like landing on this format, writing in verse was the right way, unless maybe your ideas came out in verse to begin with.

If that's something that you like, I don't know. 


John: No, it did. It just, so I, I can't remember the exact date right now, but I just wrote it in an interview. Like, let's just say on March 20th, 2021. I finished revising The Gift of Story, and the very next day, I started writing Louder Than Hunger. And I revise all my books in New York City, so I know, like, exactly where I was when I started writing Louder Than Hunger.


I was on the plane going back to Chicago, and there was this really loud voice. And I knew immediately that his name was Jake, and I knew immediately that his name was Jake, even though it was my childhood voice that was talking to me, because when I was a kid, I really wished my name were Jake, and when I was a child, I loved to play school, like many people who become teachers and teacher librarians, and my favorite student was Jake, and so I was like, okay, this is Jake's story, and where the first draft of the book started what I call Act Two, which is where Jake is in the hospital.


So the first draft of the book started there, and then the whole book was only told in flashback. And then I realized that was working for me as a re as the writer and as a person who was healing through writing it, because I knew all the backstory in my head, but the reader didn't. And so when the story really started to come to life was when I, I went to the, back to the beginning where he starts writing his name over and over and over again, which at one time was toward the end of the book cause it took you almost the whole book to get to when Jake was in the eighth grade. And I, and it, something just unlocked once I wrote that and, and I knew where to go from there. And I knew to, to write to the point where then he's hospitalized. 


Matthew: You took several years writing this. Um, did you, did you feel, did you find that you were able to not be precious with your story despite it being Oh yeah. your story. 


John: Yeah. Yeah. I like the word precious. Yeah. It was cause it was interesting sometimes writing it. Cause people know me as such a joyful person. And, you know, when you have a book, this is a school and this is a story, you know, an ode to school and ode to story, but then we all have multiple layers.


And it was actually very easy for me to read, to write the raw poetry because I connected so quickly. back to that child, you know, that child who was suffering all the time and always had to be in a mental space where I would never want to go back there, right? That I wouldn't be like, oh, now the voice is back in my head because I'm spending so much time with the voice.


But I, I think writing it, though, helped me heal parts of my childhood and parts of myself that I didn't know I was still holding on to, and that I perhaps still had anger about. And writing this allowed me to really, I think, heal the childhood me, the child self. 


Matthew: That's beautiful. I, um, want to be respectful of our time, but I am also so grateful that, uh, not only I will soon get to read the print book we were talking before recording about what a unique experience it was for me, and it sounds like a number of others to be able to first access the audio book before the print book, um, and what it means or what it feels like to experience, uh, hearing a novel in verse, read to you, performed to you before reading it at your own pacing in a, in a print, um, novel.


But I wanted to share back with you something that, I've been carrying with me, which is that, um, the entire time I was reading, uh, when Jeff Ebner would read, uh, words in repeat three times, I learned from you that some of these words, when I read the book, are going to be filling the page. Jake has filled the page with those words.


The effect for me of hearing a word repeated three times. Tap, tap, tap, knock, knock. Well, oh, that is though, that is true though. Those one were of did the good. Yeah. I, I don't know what is or what isn't, but that, for me, for this reader, John, really activated the feeling for me of, of. watching Dear Evan Hansen and of what, that story and the existence of a story like that in mainstream media, not just on Broadway, but, but going out and, and, and becoming, uh, something that, that exists in, in the, the, the, in, in our, uh, populist collective was something that, um, I, I was really grateful.


It was really, entertaining to me and exciting to me to hear Jeff read those words. And every time he read to me, John, I thought of that lyric or those lyrics. And it was, that was, yeah, I 


John: hadn't thought of it. It's like tap, tap, tapping on the bedroom window. Is it on the bedroom window? 


Matthew: Yeah, but, but, but to have.

An experience of, um, someone reading to you and having it connect with another musical thing, it offered for me an additional way in to connect with Jake, whom, uh, I loved so much getting to know him in this story and getting to know him as what felt like a full, portrayal of him. So thank you, John, for sharing Jake's story, and in that way, your story, um, the way that you did through Louder Than Hunger.


John: Oh, thank you. I do want to show you, though, an example, Matthew. I know people cannot see, but on page 80, you see how the sob Sob and sob and sob and sob and sob. So he, in this case, I'm just looking and there's probably 80 sobs there. He read 10 of them. But yeah, tap tap tap and that repetition is in the print.


Matthew: Well, as much as I always love this, we have left so much still on the table to discuss. And I can't wait until we get to continue discussing it. But also I, I can't wait because I know you will be discussing it with your readers. So John, before I let you go, I will ask you a question. I've had the privilege of asking you several times throughout our years, which is I'll see a library full of children tomorrow morning, John.


Is there a message that I can bring to them from you or maybe even in this case from you and Jake? I don't know. 


John: Yeah, so a message for me. Well, what I would love to know is what are they excited about right now? And what, it doesn't have to be about reading, but what's something that they feel really, really passionate passionately about right now?

And what do they want to share with you? And by doing that, they'll share their heart through whatever they're excited about right now. So that's what I would love. It's my favorite thing to do is ask lots of questions. 



OUTRO


Matthew: Thank you to John Schu for joining me on The Children’s Book Podcast. 


You can pick up your own copy of Louder Than Hunger wherever books are found. Consider supporting independent bookstores by shopping through Bookshop.org or by downloading the audiobook through Libro.fm. You can also use my affiliate link by clicking on the book’s name in our show notes.


Our podcast logo was created by Duke Stebbins (https://stebs.design/). 


Our music is by Podington Bear. 


Podcast hosting by Libsyn. 


You can support the show and buy me a coffee at www.matthewcwinner.com.


And on that note…


Be well. And read on.



End Of Episode

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