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Arts & Culture

A daycare... a test prep... a community center? Kids' book explores what a school is

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

What is a school for? It's a question that many educators, families and students have been asking and looking for answers to the last couple of years. Is a school a holding pen for kids or a place that preps students for tests? Or is a school a community's very center? Well, "This Is A School" is a new picture book that tries to find some of these answers. It was written by John Schu and illustrated by Veronica Miller Jamison. Welcome to both of you.

JOHN SCHU: Thank you so much for having us today and for celebrating "This Is A School."

VERONICA MILLER JAMISON: Thank you for having us. It's really exciting to be here.

CHANG: John, I want to start with you because you are someone who has thought a lot about and waded through tons of kids' books for a long, long time. And to many in the kids' book world, you are the blogger Mr. Schu. Why was this the time to write your own book, and why this book?

SCHU: So it was the right time because of one of my favorite authors, Amy Krouse Rosenthal, who inspired me so much as a teacher, as a librarian, as a writer. And in the year 2017, sadly, Amy Krouse Rosenthal passed away. And when she passed away, she said something in an interview that really resonated with me and inspired me, which was, make the most of your time here. And so I started to, every morning before I got out of bed, say to myself, make the most of your time here. And because of that phrase, I started writing "This Is A School."

CHANG: Oh, I love that. Veronica, when John first asked you to illustrate this book, how did he lay out his vision to you?

MILLER JAMISON: What really drew me to it was reading the manuscript. It's an ode. It's lyrical. It's a song of affection and compassion about the school community. And I also got this manuscript in the middle of the pandemic. And I knew that by the time the book came out, we would all want - we would all be wanting to be coming together again and having a different perspective on that, being more appreciative of that. And so I just was excited about the opportunity to celebrate a community that means so much to children.

CHANG: Veronica, was there - I don't know - like, a particular idea, a particular page that rang true for you where you felt like, yes, this is what a school is for?

MILLER JAMISON: So there's a passage in the in the poem that says, some days we get so excited, and we can't wait to try something new. Now, what happened right before I got this manuscript was my husband shared with me a little picture of him when he was a school child dressed up as Duke Ellington for Halloween...

CHANG: Oh, my God.

MILLER JAMISON: ...A Halloween parade. It's extremely cute. So when I read this stanza, I immediately got this picture of, like, a miniature version of my husband running to school, you know, being excited to...

CHANG: Oh, my goodness.

MILLER JAMISON: ...Run to school and do experiments. So that was the nugget. And when we announced the book, that was the illustration of that character. We used that illustration to announce the book.

CHANG: That's incredible. Well, John, what about you? Was there an illustration that Veronica made that got you to go, oh, whoa, I hadn't even thought of that, but that is such a great way to embody what I wrote?

SCHU: Yeah, over and over and over again. I said that. And Veronica over and over and over again surprised me but also look directly into my brain and knew what I was thinking about. When I was in elementary school, I struggled with math. And I'll never forget my third grade teacher made us do math problems on the chalkboard and feeling nervous and having butterflies in my stomach in that moment. And then Veronica took that experience and put it in the book where you see a boy who looks anxious during math class, but his teacher helps him and embraces him. And I think Veronica had a similar experience as a child. And so many children have a moment, you know, in their schooling where they feel that. And hopefully there's a teacher that helps them and fosters - you know, shows them it's OK to be stuck and that...

CHANG: Right.

SCHU: ...There are people who will help you. But my favorite moment in the book is the theater spread. There's a moment where the kids are putting on a play, and you can see all of their personalities come to life so beautifully. And I love that the characters are helping each other and that there's the art teacher and the librarian, and it's just a true moment of connection on the stage.

CHANG: You know, as I flip through these gorgeous pictures, taking in the diversity, the inclusiveness, it did make me wonder, like, how much of this book is aspirational. Like, in your minds, does this bright, colorful, supportive community actually exist?

MILLER JAMISON: It did not look like this for me when I was a kid growing up in elementary school.

CHANG: Yeah, me neither.

MILLER JAMISON: But this is my world as an adult, and that's what I was drawing from. You know, I think that this is my hope for children - that they're able to be in these communities where there's so many people, different people, different experiences, different abilities all helping and recognizing and affirming each other. And there's some places where I'm really deliberate about putting children of different backgrounds together and showing them...

CHANG: Yes.

MILLER JAMISON: Interacting in a way that's positive - showing little boys it's OK to follow the leadership of women and the help of their friends - their female friends around them, you know, just trying to flip some of these assumptions that I think we learn as we grow older and get into the spirit of children who - when children first see each other, it's just - you're the same age as me. You like trucks, too. Let's go (laughter).

CHANG: Yeah.

MILLER JAMISON: You know?

CHANG: Yeah - rather than seeing race or gender or disability.

MILLER JAMISON: Yeah.

CHANG: Yeah.

MILLER JAMISON: Yeah, exactly. And so - and also, like, the child in the wheelchair - he's completely integrated into the school.

CHANG: Yes.

MILLER JAMISON: He's a main character. And so I think on some level, it is aspirational. I know it is what we could be. I know we can learn from children because this is kind of how they, you know, hold each other anyway. Those things kind of don't matter. And I hope that - I didn't want to be - how do I say this? I want it to just - this is just how this community is, you know? I didn't want to kind of, like, make a message out of it or, you know, make a lesson out of it. Like, no. This is just how you treat the people around you.

SCHU: Yeah. And when I talk to teachers about it, I would say that it shows that school can be a place of hope and school can be a place of play and school can be a place of healing. And most importantly for me, like, the theme throughout the entire book and in all of my work in schools and all the work that I do as a lover of children's books is moments of connection and that school can be a place of connection. And that's what I hope that students and teachers and families walk away thinking about when they read the last page of "This Is A School."

CHANG: May I read that last page?

SCHU: Oh, yes, please.

CHANG: The very, very last page has one single sentence, and it says, and we are all important. I love that. The book is "This Is A School." John Schu wrote the words, and Veronica Miller Jamison illustrated them. Thanks so much to both of you.

SCHU: Thank you so much. Thank you. This was such an honor.

MILLER JAMISON: Thank you so much, Ailsa.

(SOUNDBITE OF BROKEN SOCIAL SCENE'S "LAST PLACE") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.