Interview with MONIKA SCHROEDER,By Sheilah Egan

Author Monika Schroeder is dedicated to writing for middle grade readers and young adults, utilizing stories and themes that often reflect the transitional times of a country’s history.

Born in Germany, Schroeder was a schoolteacher for years before she decided to become a librarian. After getting her library endorsement at The American Embassy School, she continued to be a part of the International school system and taught “overseas” for many years. In fact, she met her husband in Cairo, Egypt. Her international travels and years living in a variety of countries have imbued her writing with a deep sense of the people and diverse cultures she has had the opportunity to observe and study. While living in India she studied Hindi as well as the pantheon of religions in the area, in order to help her understand the people among whom she was living and working. As an aside to the audience at the L.U.C.Y Conference (Old Dominion University), she said that now that she lives in Madison County, NC (near Ashville) she is studying Appalachian Baptists, Snake Handlers, and other local religions. Once again, she is very interested in having a deeper understanding of the people in whose community she lives and works as a full-time writer.

A woman of great reserve, Schroeder, gave the audience a look at her personal writing habits and discussed her school presentations with obvious enjoyment. Telling her rapt listeners, “…as I tell the students, I use the BIC method: BUTT in Chair.” Waving away the audience’s laughter, she stressed that she wants to impress students with “… the power of hard work and practice. One must put in the hours of writing to get better at the craft.” Her advice to “write and rewrite” is something that she practices daily, as she revises manuscripts “multiple times.” The first draft is to capture the ideas and “… it is almost always bad.” Her husband is her “peer editor” and she encourages young writers to let someone they trust read their work and discuss it at length. She had a number of slides to share with those of us in the audience, and commented that students like the one of a page of her work with the “many markings” showing where things could be written better. It is really important for readers to realize that “real authors” write and rewrite and revise “all of the time.”

Because she started writing while she was still teaching school, she developed the habit of writing early in the morning. She practices BIC at least five hours a day and sticks to her schedule rigorously. Her special writing partner/companion is an Indian street dog named Frank, whose picture always evokes “aahhs” from student groups-and adult ones as well. While she is fleshing out a book she contends with all of the other things one “must do,” citing job obligations (while teaching), dog walking, gardening, cooking, house work, etc. “But when I get to the intense part of the story, I do not want to stop writing. I am either writing or talking about it, a lot.” As a rule, she does not make an outline, per se, though she does have a general plan in mind and creates “virtual note cards” to keep ideas and scenes available for insertion in their proper places. She also maintains a chart to track “emotional development of the characters.” When she starts a project she establishes the setting, characters’ goal(s), obstacles, complications, etc. Then she imagines the story structure with its beginning, middle, and end encompassing the goal(s), dealing with the obstacles that make the plot, and the transformations that bring the story to its conclusion. After she has finished the book, she builds an outline “to get the story arc and structure right.” Utilizing what she learns about the book from this exercise, she begins the rewrite and revision process. Students are often shocked at the amount of work it takes to “get it right.”

Because the conference was for teachers and librarians, Schroeder spoke directly to their work with discussions of methods to interest students in writing and perfecting skills while practicing writing. Her first suggestions included advice about the selection of topics; she feels strongly that students need to care about their choice of topic-it “makes revising easier.” A narrative style (based on the Lucy Calkins’ method) is her favorite starting point with children. Because she was using fourth graders in her examples, she questioned, “just how many moments worth exploring” have been experienced by most ten year olds? “Free Writing Fridays” were popular with her students as it set them free to write about their own topics. Again, she stressed that students need to write everyday, “… hard work and practice are the key to success.”

While talking about the writing process, she also gave some ideas about her philosophy of literacy instruction. In her opinion, “literacy instruction” has been geared mainly toward girls with the emphasis on “feelings, emotions, reactions to school and family situations, etc.” and that boys respond differently to such an approach-often in negative ways, simply because “… they may not want to discuss ‘feelings.'” Finding different ways to stimulate boys’ interest in writing could include allowing more freedom in the choices of style and content. She has had great success with introducing comic book styles, play writing (including letting them “act out” the finished work), graphic novels, illustrated memoirs, and other forms that allow more freedom during the writing experience. It also became apparent that she does not believe in ” “… restricting what they choose to read.” All reading “… qualifies in my opinion” she stated while telling about some of her efforts to promote family reading and parent literacy.

As the school librarian, she was able to form a Father – Son book club that became the focus of expanding the reading selections of participants by exposing them to books talks about nonfiction, exploring the “packaging” of reading materials (such as newspapers and magazines-both in hard copy and on-line), and demonstrating the importance of modeling reading by being a model herself. She also stressed that books and reading “… must be seen as valued and important in both the classroom and home environments.” Even at the middle school level, connecting parents to literacy is extremely important. Naturally, modeling reading and reading aloud can and should begin at birth but it is never too late to convince parents to become involved with their students’ literacy experiences.

One of the ways Schroeder was able to expand the Father – Son book club experience for the entire school was the presentation of “Parents and Kids” evenings featuring authors and books from particular cultures. With a grant from Toyota ($500.00…she encouraged everyone to explore grant possibilities in their communities.), she was able to produce an entire evening of Indian food, Indian dancing, and “… a celebration of Indian culture in books and music. All of the hard work arranging things is worthwhile when you make connections for families that encourage reading and literacy.” Many schools have “parent involvement specialists,” she said that teachers and librarians should work closely with them (or help develop such a position) to promote any activities that bring parents and children together with reading and exposure to reading materials.

During her presentation, she used examples from some of her own writing experiences-telling about how some of her books were “born,” about some of her research, and about background details from history that became part of the work as she expanded an initial idea into a completed book. The idea that life is full of transitions and that cultures and governments also endure major periods of “transitional thinking” is of particular interest to Schroeder. Having been born in Germany, she finds it “difficult to fathom how or why Germany could attack Russia in WWII after the experiences of WWI.” Her interest in history leads her to explore its influence on people and to ponder the changes of thinking that accompanies transitions in governments. Citing the very generalized facts of Germany’s and Soviet Russia’s history as “… a monarchy followed by a democracy that devolved into dictatorship then into communism and on to Democratic governance in 1989” she displayed obvious intensity in considering the implications for the people these changes encompassed.

In questioning what it must have been like to endure the post WWII years, she wrote My Brother’s Shadow. Putting her sixteen-year-old antagonist in the setting of a newspaper’s print shop allowed her to write about the actual history of the Social Democratic Movement as unfolding history in the storyline. Her research led her to pictures that made an indelible impact on her as she wrote. One particularly striking moment depicted how desperate the people were for food as the British blockade remained in place after the war was actually over. A carriage horse died on the street and a photograph was taken as people rushed out to butcher the carcass immediately-food was so scarce that the horse “disappeared” in mere moments. Also set in this time frame, The Dog in the Wood tells a dramatic story of loss and survival in a changing Germany at the end of World War II.

It was while living and teaching in India, that she observed the street children and the plight of the poor. Saraswati’s Way tells the story of one young boy whose family sends off him to work to help pay off the families debts; but he realizes that no matter how hard he works “he will never even make a dent in the debt and runs away.” Schroeder’s question in this book: “To what length would you go to achieve your dreams?” Her character, Akash, suffers the hardships of the homeless after he arrives in New Delhi but he has had some education and “has a mathematical mind” thus his fate is changed. Incorporating the importance of math to Akash’s life serves as (subtle) reinforcement that education is the key to a better life-for everyone. The ancient Vedic system of mental math short cuts is introduced and may entice readers to explore this fascinating practice. Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of education, thus the title and another fact introduced to readers.

With a calm delivery, Schroeder conveyed her message that all adults must participate in helping the next generations build their literacy skills to provide a good life for themselves and a secure future for all of us. Her sincerity was often punctuated with broad smiles and tiny, humorous asides to the audience. Everyone knew that they had been fortunate to have the opportunity to listen to an author who truly believes in young people and has great hopes for their development as readers and writers. Now that she is a full time writer, we can hope for many more interesting, informative, thought provoking books about young people making a difference in their own lives and those of others.

Visit Monika Schroeder’s website for more information about her books, author visits, and speaking engagements–and more about Frank, the Indian street dog.

Titles by Monika Schroeder

The Dog in the Wood

Monika Schroeder

Elizabeth Bush (The Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, January 2010 (Vol. 63, No. 5))

World War II is drawing to a close in Fritz’s eastern German town, but his grandfather, an ardent Nazi, is not about to surrender. He makes plans for the women of his family to hide out in the forest while he and Fritz defend the homestead from the approaching Russian troops. The plan is never executed, though; when the Russians advance, Fritz’s grandparents commit suicide and leave their grandson, his mother, his sister, and their hired Polish farmhand, Lech, to fend for themselves. First, their home is occupied by Russian soldiers, which turns out to be something of a blessing in disguise, as the family is treated humanely and share in the material comforts the Russians manage to procure. When the soldiers move on, though, Fritz and his relatives are ousted from their farm by the newly established Communist party, and they all move in with Fritz’s maternal grandmother. By this time, Fritz is on his last nerve, and he’s in no mood to offer affection to a grandmother he scarcely knows. When his mother and Lech are arrested on a trumped-up charge of weapons possession, Fritz must come to terms with his latest loss and what must inevitably be his new home. German-born author Schroeder tackles a piece of history not usually considered in the U.S., and the exploration is both enlightening and sobering. While the grave tone of the narration and the historical context required to follow Fritz’s family turmoil suggest a readership considerably older than the ten-year-old protagonist, the drama of the bleak reality should overcome that gap. The story, based on the author’s family history, is thoroughly credible and compelling, and the war’s aftermath for the defeated German civilians is a subject worth exploring Review Code: R — Recommended. 2009, Front Street, Grades 5-9., $17.95.

ISBN: 9781590787014

My Brother’s Shadow

Monika Schroeder

War stories are often told from the viewpoint of the victor, but Schroeder tells a different tale–the story of the German Schmidt family in the closing days of World War I. Teenage Moritz Schmidt has taken on the responsibilities of man-of-the-house since his father was an early war casualty and his brother is serving in the Kaiser’s forces. Moritz struggles with the ethics of wartime survival for his family. Although he and his mother are both employed, the family struggles with food rationing, the threat of Spanish flu (which has already killed Moritz’s younger sister), and other hardships of the wartime political landscape. Moritz’s mother and sister have joined the radical Social Democrat party, a subversive organization promoting revolution from within the country. While Moritz is initially neutral, he is brought into the activities of the party by his association with Rebecca Cohen, the secretary to Hugo Haase, a party official. Moritz’s brother’s return from the war, disabled and addicted to morphine, represents the seeds of change in Germany. Hans, embittered by the German military loss and the abdication of the Kaiser, takes out his anger on his family and through acts of anti-Semitic brutality. While Moritz moves ahead in his chosen career as a journalist, it is easy to see that Hans represents Germany’s other path, the one that leads to Hitler’s rise to power and Germany’s path to World War II. Schroeder’s portrait of wartime Germany is even-handed and takes the reader into and important postscript to World War I, the dominance of Democratic Socialism which included suffrage and office holding for women. With a budding romance between Christian Moritz and Jewish Rebecca, a future conflict is predictable but adds a human interest hook for readers. 2011, Francis Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, Ages 12 to 16, $17.99.

REVIEWER: Lois Rubin Gross (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780374351229

Saraswati’s Way

Monika Schroeder

Writing a culturally grounded novel for young readers poses special challenges. This is especially true when the writer does not belong to the selected setting. Too often, when the place is the complex cultural swirl that is South Asia, plot options turn to contrivances driven by the writer’s perspective. Solutions may arise from a tidily placed foreigner who rescues the unfortunate protagonist, as in Shirley Arora’s What Then, Raman? and more recently, Patricia McCormick’s otherwise eloquent Sold. More disconcertingly, the impressionistic effect of the place itself on the page can sometimes be that of a tourist video (e.g., in Gloria Whelan’s Homeless Bird). In clear contrast, Monika Schroeder has approached the challenges of this outsider narrative with far less agenda, and armed with two main requisites of good writing: a keen eye and an acute sense for the heart of her twelve-year-old protagonist, Akash. Young Akash has always loved numbers. But a poor boy like him is hardly merits an education, especially now that his father has died and his family is burdened by a drug-addicted gambler of an uncle. When his unfeeling grandmother sends Akash to the rock quarry to work, he knows he must turn his back on everything he knew to be his world, and head to the city to pursue his dreams. His ensuing life as a rag picker on Delhi’s rough streets is chronicled with care, until the moment he begins to find ways to realize the steps he must take. The brutality is undiluted, yet enough of the threat is implied or subtly drawn that this book will work for middle grade readers. There is generosity and affection as well among the band of children, and ultimately in the elderly newspaper vendor and other adult allies who see something special in this boy. The storyline weaves in the Hindu calendar of festivals and religious observances. Through the influence of a kindly village teacher, the book also introduces concepts from Vedic mathematics, an ancient system teaching clever mental practices and calculation shortcuts. Much more than an unsentimental look at India’s realities, this is a story that honors the yearnings of children, and seeks to bring a hopeful vision to a multi-layered, often self-contradictory place. Pair with Boys Without Names by Kashmira Sheth for an insider narrative depicting a child protagonist in similar circumstances. 2010, Frances Foster Books/Farrar Straus Giroux, $15.99. Ages 10 up.

REVIEWER: Uma Krishnaswami (Children’s Literature).

ISBN: 9780374364113

Compiled by Peg Glisson
November 1, 2013

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