Beloved teacher and librarian John Schu joins Zibby to discuss LOUDER THAN HUNGER, a heart-wrenching and transformative novel-in-verse about a sensitive teen struggling with crippling anxiety and anorexia—inspired by the author’s experiences. John delves into his journey with mental health and the importance of crafting narratives that inspire without inadvertently glorifying harmful behaviors. He also explores the relationships portrayed in the book, touches on the themes of resilience and forgiveness, and shares his passion for musical theater and Broadway musicals!


Zibby Owens: Welcome, John. Thank you so much for coming on "Moms Don't Have Time to Read Books" to discuss Louder Than Hunger.

John Schu: Thank you so much for having me here. It's an honor.

Zibby: John, this is the best book that I have read in a really long time. I read lots of books. I was crying. I was so moved. I am so moved. I feel like I'm going to cry even just talking about your book again. I never wear red, ever. I changed out of what I was wearing earlier. I was like, you know what? I think I'm just going to wear this red blazer today. Then the whole thing is about your grandmother and red and the red car and her love of red. I was like, it's the universe. It is the universe, I swear.

John: That was my first thought. You're wearing Grandma's favorite color.

Zibby: I am. I kind of am wearing a grandma-type jacket. What am I even wearing? I don't even know. [laughter] Congratulations. This book is beauty. It's just perfection. You're amazing and so talented. I'm blown away.

John: Thank you. Thank you. Compliments are very hard for me. I'm learning to accept them. Thank you.

Zibby: Don't worry about it. You can just nod. You don't even have to say anything. I just feel good saying it myself. I like to hear myself say that. I'm kidding. I'm kidding. I want listeners to know because I picked it up, and I was like, oh, come on, all these people blurbed this book? Really? The biggest-deal people ever? Didn't you get Dav Pilkey and Wimpy Kid -- what is his name?

John: It's Jeff Kinney.

Zibby: Jeff Kinney, who, by the way, my kids love so much that my son wants us to rent an RV and drive to Maryland to go to his bookstore. That's on our to-do list.

John: Oh, yes. You must. His bookstore is amazing.

Zibby: That's on our weekend plans list. Anyway, I couldn't believe all these people blurbed it and were saying such nice things. Not that I couldn't believe it, but I was like, this is an all-star cast. Now I totally get it. Why don't you tell listeners what your book is about?

John: I see Louder Than Hunger in four acts. It's a novel in verse. It opens in the year 1996, which I think makes it historical fiction. Many people don't like when I say that. [laughs] 

Zibby: I think historical fiction -- I'm deciding this for everyone -- is before 1976, which is when I was born. Anything before that, 1996 is not historical fiction.

John: It's not historical fiction. It takes place in 1996. The main character's name is Jake Edward Stacey. My real name is John Edward Schumacher, and so we have the same initials. Jake is me. I am Jake, but I needed a little bit of distance from myself. I also didn't want to write a memoir because I wanted to play with the timeline. I wanted to play with the truth. The book opens with Jake spiraling out of control. There's a very, very loud voice inside of his head, an inner saboteur that tells him that he's worthless and that he's repulsive and that he doesn't deserve food. Throughout the first act, he takes food away from himself. Thanks to a wonderful lady named Ms. Burns at a local nursing home where he volunteers, she calls -- this really happened in my own story. She calls and tells his mother that she's concerned. Because of that, he's admitted into a facility called Whispering Pines. I named it Whispering Pines because the real facility that I was in was called Linden Oaks, and so I wanted it to sound like trees. Then I love The Golden Girls, and it sounds like Shady Pines to me a little bit. He goes to Whispering Pines. He is diagnosed with anorexia nervosa, obsessive compulsive disorder, depression, and anxiety. In the beginning, he resists treatments. He says that he doesn't belong here, but he really knows that he belongs here. You spend a year with Jake as he starts to get better. Then there are setbacks. There's many trials and tribulations. Because you know the story is based on me and that I turned out okay -- the thing that saved me was libraries and books and musical theater. It's the absolutely true story of my heart.

Zibby: There are so many amazing parts of it. A, the format and how you used letters and words in totally different ways. Sometimes you stack two words. Sometimes you spread the letters over the page. That was very cool. That could be cool but not that interesting if the content is not interesting, but that happened to be a part of why it was interesting. B, it's the open, raw feelings, the detailing of what it was like being in this inpatient unit. I actually worked at an adolescent inpatient unit. I was a psychology major. I worked there in college and also worked in an eating disorders clinic in college in a different place. I'm very interested for just so many reasons. How you write about the whole thing, how you really got in this character's head, we were in it in a different way, just this view on eating disorders and all of it. That's more compliments you're not going to know what to do with, so let me ask you a question. 

John: I know. I'm just trying to say thank you. [laughs] 

Zibby: I'm sorry. I'm sorry. How did you decide on the formatting and how you wrote it? Did you, in treatment when you had the empty journal given to you, which I'm assuming happened, start writing in this way, the poetry this way?

John: Jake started talking to me right after I finished revising a book called The Gift of Story, which is all about the affective side of reading and writing. I really applied a framework that I created in order to write this book. It was kind of distracting in the beginning, but it helped me figure out the structure of the book and what I wanted to include and what I didn't want to include. The reason I wrote it in the way that I did, as a novel in verse, is because there's lots of white space in the margins. As you said, this is very raw. It was easier for me to become vulnerable because of that white space. Something that I didn't realize I was doing but people have pointed out, and I see it's true, is that Jake has a hard time taking up space in the world, but he doesn't have a hard time taking up space on the page. Sometimes one word goes across two pages. Sometimes the font gets so big that it overtakes the page. Being a novel in verse allowed me to play with the placement of the words on the page. It also allowed me to show Jake's anxiety, I believe.

Zibby: Wow. You, in the book, talk a lot about writing helping you, as you just said, books helping you. There's a wonderful scene where you go to a bookstore, and the flying flags outside and bumping into someone likeminded there that made your ears go red even talking about. Tell me about the power of books and reading and how you've devoted your life to it.

John: I believe I became a reader because of a book called Goofy's Big Race. Goofy's Big Race is almost a character in the book. I was very close to my grandma growing up. Every Saturday, we would go to the grocery store because my grandma was obsessed with coupons. Even if she didn't need another container of olives, if there was a coupon, she must go to the store and get them. My favorite thing about going grocery shopping with her on Saturday was, at the time, Jewel-Osco, which is a grocery store in Illinois where I live, had books as part of a Disney collection that you could buy. My grandma read that book to me so many times that it truly became tattooed on my heart. There's a refrain in it, which is, "Slow and steady. Steady and slow. That's the way we always go." I was a very anxious child. I was a child who always liked to rush through things. My grandma would always recite that to me. I think by her reciting that to me at an early age, it helped me see the comfort in books. It helped me see the power of the read-aloud. Then as a child, I would read any book that was based on a movie. I was obsessed with novelizations. 

I love telling teachers and family members, parents, please don't look down upon those types of books. I'm a reader because of them. I think I loved books like that because I was already familiar with the characters. I was already familiar with the basic story plot. I would connect immediately. I was a reader my whole childhood all through elementary school and middle school. My undergraduate degree is in elementary education. I was a third-grade teacher for three years, fourth-grade teacher for one year, school librarian for nine years. In all of the work that I do, it all centers in the power of story. Story is always on my mind. I think I love books so much because it's the best way to connect with people. In Louder Than Hunger, you see at one time I had a very, very hard time connecting with people. I believe I do the work that I do today because I'm always looking for the little Jakes of the world and little Johnnie Schus of the world when I visit schools. I find ways to reach them, perhaps, before it's too late. That was a very long-winded answer.

Zibby: That's okay. It's a thirty-minute show, so it's fine. That's amazing. You talk about the effects of -- well, you don't say it in such an outright way. You say it in a beautiful way, but how bullying is what sort of set you off on this one direction. You really show us how happy you used to be and that -- these kids were the kids that you went to their birthday parties and this and that. You show us in this one particularly moving passage about what happens in sixth grade, seventh grade, eighth grade until you have a heartbreaking -- I won't even go -- oh, my gosh. I love that you're trying to single-handedly go into stores and protect kids. That's so on brand with this whole book. How do you look back and feel? Do you feel angry? Do you feel any differently about it now than being in Jake's head at that age and processing it?

John: I didn't think that I was angry any longer, but writing this book brought forth a lot of the emotions. In order to write this book, I had to place myself right back in elementary school and middle school. I had to experience the pain. I didn't fully realize that I hadn’t fully healed until I wrote this book. Even if the book had never been published, writing it helped me so much. As Kate DiCamillo would say, it helped me excavate the pain and the grief of my childhood. It allowed me, really, to let go of it and to be vulnerable enough as an adult to stand in front of people and say, I spent two years in a mental health facility because of anorexia nervosa. Jake is only one year. My own story was two years. Two years would be way too long for a book.

Zibby: I don't know, I could've kept reading, but I'm sorry. Are you thinking of continuing Jake's story?

John: I would like to. My agent and I have talked about it. I'm toying with -- probably, I shouldn't say this -- with perhaps telling a secondary character's story.

Zibby: Oh, good.

John: One of the secondary characters keeps talking to me. 

Zibby: Excellent. I have a guess of which one it is. I would love to read her story, if that's who it was. Excellent. That's a good idea. You talk about the relationship between Jake's mom, who clearly suffers from depression and I'm not sure what else -- that's at least how he interprets it at that age. Can you talk about your own relationship with your mom and how that informed what -- did she suffer from depression?

John: In one version of the book, I explored my mom's depression more, but I think it started to become too heavy. It distracted a little bit from Jake's story. I appreciate that you did see that Jake's mom is suffering from depression. My own mom is bipolar. She wouldn't mind me saying that. She is still with us. I'm nervous for her to read the book. Last night, I just ordered her a copy.

Zibby: She hasn't --

John: -- She's not read it, no.

Zibby: What?

John: No, my mother has not read it. No one in my family has read it. I kind of kept it secret that I was working on it. The more buzz it gets, the more press it gets, the more I hear from family members who are very, very excited to read it. I'll be interested to see the conversation that my mom and I have after she reads it. 

Zibby: Oh, my gosh. It just came out two days ago, right?

John: It got moved. It's actually coming out on March 19th.

Zibby: Oh, okay. Got it.

John: It's not out yet. It was supposed to be out already.

Zibby: I see. Okay, got it. I was confused. Sorry about that. I have the old press thing. Wow, I cannot believe your mom has not read this. I'm really interested to hear what she has to say. What is your relationship like? You can't, probably, talk about this either. What is your relationship like now? Looking back now that you're more, probably, around the age they would have been when you went in, or close to it, how do you feel about how everything was handled and all of that?

John: It's a complicated relationship. My grandma was my best friend. I was really, really close to my grandma. I eventually moved in with my grandma full time. I haven't lived with my parents since I was thirteen years old. When I left the mental health facility, I moved in with my grandma full time. It's a complicated relationship, as many relationships are.

Zibby: We can leave it like that. We'll just leave it like that. I also had a really, really close relationship with my grandmother, as many people do. It brought back that bond. Even when Jake's mom at some point says she actually felt a little jealous, I feel like that's really hard for moms to admit, when you're in that middle. I found that very interesting.

John: That's true. When I was hospitalized, my mom -- almost, I directly quoted her in the book. She said something like, I know I'm not the mom that you wanted, but I'm grateful you have your grandma. My mom was always going through her own trials and tribulations. It was hard. She was a very young mom too.

Zibby: Let's talk about Broadway. What plays are you loving that are out now? Have you seen any of them? What are you into?

John: I am obsessed with musical theater, as Jake is. When I was revising Louder Than Hunger, I saw Into the Woods on Broadway eight times, which is why I wrote it into the book. It wasn't there in the beginning.

Zibby: That's so funny.

John: I was watching it over and over. I always have a notebook in my lap. I was taking notes. I thought, oh, my goodness, this is the perfect musical to use to show how Jake is lost in the woods of his mind. Then he's at a place called Whispering Pines, and it sounds like it's related to Into the Woods. I saw that so many times because I love the musical Waitress. I actually saw Waitress on Broadway thirty-eight times.

Zibby: Stop it.

John: I could've been a producer. I love Sara Bareilles. Right now, the musical that I'm seeing over and over is Merrily We Roll Along. Have you seen it?

Zibby: Not yet.

John: It's so good. The three main stars have such amazing chemistry together. I pretty much see everything on Broadway. I often say I only write books so that I can see Broadway shows.

Zibby: Do you live in New York now?

John: No, I live in Naperville, Illinois, which is a suburb.

Zibby: I thought so. You just keep going to New York?

John: I write and revise all of my books in New York City. It's a muse to me. I start every writing session every day next to the Bethesda Fountain, which is why an angel is in the book. I wrote the angel in because whenever I was stuck or whenever I needed to share something about the story, I would go to the Bethesda Terrace. It's a spiritual place for me. I wish I lived there.

Zibby: I have to send you a picture. I do not live far from -- I probably shouldn't talk about where I live. I was walking through Central Park during a huge flood. I'm going to send you a picture of the Bethesda Fountain underwater. You're going to love it. It was really cool. It went into the water. Anyway, do you realize that it's good? Do you feel good about it?

John: I do. The theme of today is, I have a hard time with compliments.

Zibby: That was a question. [laughter] 

John: I realize because it's resonating with people. I'm seeing that everyone has a form of a voice in their head. It might not manifest as anorexia nervosa, but we all have a little voice in our head that we have to learn how to manage. I've never had conversations with people about that outside of eating disorder treatment. That has been a gift, for people to tell me their stories and for us to engage in a conversation about what we do to make that voice bearable.

Zibby: You said here it still comes back sometimes. You still have to regroup and learn the skills you learned in therapy and all of that. Tell me about that.

John: In the book, the voice -- he calls it the voice.

Zibby: I'm sorry, he.

John: Oh, no, no, no. It's me. I have a hard time. I shift back and forth. I'm confusing everyone about this book. Jake uses, I use, capital V voice. Then there's a shift that I hope people notice where he changes it to a lowercase v. That was liberating writing it. Okay, Jake is finally going to start doing better. He is no longer capitalizing the v in voice. I feel as an adult I have a voice in my head that's always a lowercase v. I utilize the skills and strategies that I learned from years of therapy. When it does start to turn into a capital V, I have to figure out, what is going on right now? What am I trying to control? For me, it always comes back to an element of control. I'm grateful for all of the therapy that I had during my childhood and during my young adult years.

Zibby: I feel like a total failure that I did not notice the shift from uppercase to lowercase. I think I read it too quickly. I tend to notice stuff like that, and I did not. Oh, well. Shame on me.

John: No. See, that's a voice. [laughs] 

Zibby: Oh, my own voice. My own voice is punishing me. Now I'm going to have to talk back to that voice. This is so meta. We're just going around in circles here.

John: This is my life.

Zibby: What advice would you have to an aspiring author?

John: My advice would be to read and read and read. I feel that I am the writer I am because of all of the stories that I have read. The second thing would be to always carry a notebook with you, which might sound cliché. All of my books are written in notebooks. I have a hard time writing on the computer. There was a study that was released a month ago that proves that that is true. I don't know the neuroscience of it. Look up the article, everyone. I'm not going to misquote it. When I read it, I said, oh, yes, that is how I feel. When I write by hand, something activates differently in my brain than when I'm writing on the computer. Read a lot. Always have a notebook with you. Eavesdrop. Eavesdropping is helpful.

Zibby: My next novel is called Overheard. It's going to come out in a year and a half.

John: I love it. So you agree.

Zibby: I think authors have to be, sort of, professional eavesdroppers. Is there anything you want to say to parents? I think this audience is probably more parents than young children like Jake. I'm fairly certain. Parents who are worried about their kids and want to make sure to do the best for them.

John: When I sat down to write Louder Than Hunger, I was thinking a lot about books that I read when I was in middle school and articles that I read that were really, really harmful to me. There are very few books about anorexia nervosa, disordered eating that I recommend because a lot of them are how-to manuals. They teach you how to be sick. When I was writing Louder Than Hunger, I always had on a post-it note that books can be the perfect prescriptions that let us know that we're going to be okay. I was protecting kids who I felt were vulnerable to have an eating disorder and kids who maybe were clarifying that they have an eating disorder. When they read Louder Than Hunger, my hope is that it's not going to teach them any behaviors, that it's going to discourage them from the behaviors. What I would say to family members is that when we're going through a hard time or when we're vulnerable for something, books can be the thing that truly can save us and that can be a lifeline. It's my hope that Louder Than Hunger doesn't do any harm to readers.

Zibby: It's not going to do any harm. It's not.

John: I hope. There are books that I read as a kid that did, and so that was very much on my mind. The New York Times just reviewed it. It was the most beautiful review that got that I was really intentional in not using numbers and not using weight and taking care of the reader as they experienced Jake's story. Thank you to the New York Times reviewer.

Zibby: John, I am so happy for you. This book is amazing. You're going to be a huge -- I hope you're ready. Just get ready. Build in lots of time in your schedule to regroup and rest. Write about this, and then the next one can be Louder Than Book Tour or something. I don't know.

John: Thank you. Thank you so much. You're so kind.

Zibby: Good luck. Congratulations.

John: Thank you. Thank you so much.

Zibby: Bye.

John: Bye. Thank you. You're the best. Thank you for wearing red.

Zibby: I'm telling you, universe.

John: Have a great day. Enjoy New York City.

Zibby: Bye, John. Thanks.


Purchase your copy on Bookshop!

Share, rate, & review the podcast, and follow Zibby on Instagram @zibbyowens