John Schaidler Q&A

August 26, 2019
John Schaidler on bringing culturally relevant books to underserved populations around the globe.

“We need to remove the barriers that prevent naturally curious kids from picking up books unprompted, diving into a story and getting completely caught up until someone makes them shut off the light and go to bed.”

When did you get the idea for Full Circle Publishing to innovate on child literacy around the globe?

It began percolating in early 2012 when I was taking classes at the Humphrey School of Public Affairs. Six months prior I’d moved back to Minnesota after living in Manhattan for three years. Creative writing, literacy, and books had always been a huge part of my life, but the vast majority of my professional life had revolved around marketing and advertising. After more than 20 years in the business I was ready to shake things up. I had no idea I’d end up launching a publishing house, but I knew my next move would center on children’s literacy. The seeds for Full Circle were planted and grew out of the questions I was researching and writing in my coursework. The most important thing I learned at the Humphrey School is this idea that how you frame a problem yields a certain range of solutions. The biases and thinking embedded in the kinds of questions you ask point to an array of solutions that may not even address the problem you set out to solve. If you’re not careful and intentional in your thinking, a simple question can quickly morph into something else entirely. Maybe you start by asking, why do huge discrepancies in childhood literacy rates persist? Suddenly, before you know it, that question becomes, what can we do to improve scores on standardized reading tests? Generally, I think there’s an overemphasis and over-reliance on technical solutions to what are probably adaptive problems.

Certainly, there are many valid ways to address the complex challenge of how to raise literacy rates and narrow achievement gaps, but the core question remains: why doesn’t every kid think of reading as something you do for fun? Why is reading for pleasure not on par with things like playing video games, watching a movie, or scrolling through your Instagram feed?

Obviously, those other things all have a place—I’m not some kind of curmudgeon—but reading should be in the mix. It’s a valid entertainment option. But a huge percentage of kids simply don’t feel connected to the vast majority of books they see in the world around them. They can’t relate to the work, so the concept of reading for fun isn’t on their radar. If anything, the opposite is true. Books are dull and boring, something that adults try to force on you, like vegetables or flossing.

To spin that dynamic around and foster a culture of reading for pleasure, which time and again has been shown to improve literacy rates independent of other factors, we need to be more inclusive and make better books. We need to remove the barriers that prevent naturally curious kids from picking up books unprompted, diving into a story and getting completely caught up until someone makes them shut off the light and go to bed. So for me, it keeps coming back to How do we get high interest, culturally appropriate books into the hands of young readers? That is the question that sparked the Full Circle Publishing Project and continues to guide everything we do.

What is the need that you recognized?

Honestly, for me, identifying the need was a journey. For most of my life “The All White World of Children’s Books” was something I failed to see. Far too many of my friends and colleagues say, “When I was growing up, I could never get any books with kids who look like me.”

Going to school as a white kid in small-town eastern Wisconsin, I never experienced that. For me it was the opposite. The entire children’s publishing industry was built around kids who looked like me. “Tom Sawyer,” Dr. Seuss, Encyclopedia Brown, “Treasure Island”—I was at the center of every book I read. That’s an incredibly privileged position and it was invisible to me at the time. Truthfully, it wasn’t until my two younger kids went to grade school in New York City that I started to understand.

Working as a freelancer, I was lucky enough to be heavily involved with the school PTO and volunteer in the classroom as often as I could. Over the years I’d taught creative writing to tweens and teens. Honestly, the high-level strategies I saw my kids’ grade school teachers using pretty much blew my mind. Here were second and third graders deconstructing texts and talking about things like “authorial intent.” I’d never seen anything like it.

As I got more involved, volunteering at school and working with students directly, I noticed a whole bunch of kids simply weren’t engaged as deeply as some of their peers. The disconnect was apparent, but the real reasons weren’t yet clear. Luckily, one of the school’s big mantras was, “There are no reluctant readers, they just haven’t found the right books.” Searching for books that spoke to these young readers, the light bulb went off. Yes, there are some books that put these kids at the center, but nowhere nearly enough.

Around that time, I encountered the work of Dr. Rudine Sims Bishop and the notion of children’s books as windows, mirrors and sliding glass doors. Growing up I was pretty much oblivious to my privileged position as a young reader. Every book I read fit neatly into one of Bishop’s three categories, especially mirror books. It was a heartbreaking realization. As Dr. Sims Bishop wrote nearly three decades ago, “When children cannot find themselves reflected in the books they read, or when the images they see are distorted, negative, or laughable, they learn a powerful lesson about how they are devalued in the society of which they are a part. Our classrooms need to be places where all children from all cultures that make up the salad bowl of American society can find their mirrors.”

Circling back to the top and Nancy Larrick’s seminal essay in 1965 about “The All White World of Children’s Books,” at that time she undertook a study of over 5,000 children’s books and found that just 6.7 percent included African American characters. Recently, the Children’s Cooperative Book Center at the University of Wisconsin released its annual statistics and found—over half a century later—that only 10 percent of children’s books published in 2018 include black characters. That meager increase in a span of 50 years is not acceptable. Mainstream, commercial publishing continues to fail young readers by under-representing virtually everybody but white kids. Even worse, in my opinion, though representation is on the rise, participation by authors and illustrators of color has essentially hit a plateau or even decreased. White authors and illustrators continue to colonize spaces where they don’t always belong.

How does the theory of “comprehensible input” relate to how young readers absorb stories?

First off, a disclaimer. I’m not an academic and don’t pretend to be. So, with apologies to my academic friends and colleagues who approach these kinds of questions who much more rigor and nuance, I’ll respond in some pretty broad terms.

Comprehensible input is a hypothesis developed by Dr. Stephen D. Krashen, professor emeritus at USC. It’s part of a larger suite of interrelated hypotheses that can help us understand how people acquire and master language. The central idea posits that language inputs can be understood by readers and listeners even when they don’t understand every word. Basically, in practice, it means that students learn to read by reading. I know it almost sounds like some kind of tautological joke, but it’s built around the idea that readers use context clues and make inferences to fill in the blanks and make meaning. It’s a holistic approach that promotes book-based strategies like free voluntary reading in place of “skill and drill” exercises like vocabulary, spelling, and phonics.

One of the keys is that the texts must be relatable to be understood. If a reader can’t relate, they can start to feel pretty lost and disengage completely.

Think of it like this. If you read the word “pop,” but you’ve always called it “soda,” there’s a certain disconnect. Maybe it’s only a moment, but in that instant you struggle. It kind of knocks you off balance and adds an extra layer of work. You’re trying to learn how to read, but suddenly what you’re reading isn’t rooted in what you know. Your lived experience and the abstract world of the text feel out of sync. There’s a noticeable distance between them.

In the next paragraph you read the term “drinking fountain,” but you only know the word “bubbler.” Again, you’re slightly confused. You think you might understand, but the word in your mind and the word on the page don’t match. You’re having to acquire a bunch of new words that are meant to be implicit, so you’re working twice as hard. If that dynamic persists and the distance between the text and your life experience keeps growing, maybe you get to the point where the disconnect is too much for you to overcome.

So for me, it all circles back to not only representation, but participation. I think it’s the difference between diversity and inclusion. If we’re not careful, intentional, and precise about what a more diverse bookshelf looks like, there’s a risk of tokenization, cultural ventriloquism, and what Dr. Debbie Reese has called “funhouse mirrors,” or books that misrepresent and distort the lived experiences of people from communities that that have been historically underrepresented or even entirely absent. Ultimately, I think that leads to an #OwnVoices model—writers and illustrators with deep, authentic connections to the cultures they’re writing about. Without that, you don’t always see authentic signifiers and appropriate cultural touchstones, including things like language and story structure.

How does Full Circle model and the #OwnVoices philosophy shape the books you publish?

So, the Full Circle name actually comes from a program that was incubated, in part, at the Minnesota Literacy Council (MLC). When the project began in the spring of 2013, author Ellen Oh had yet to coin the #WeNeedDiverseBooks hashtag and the #OwnVoices hashtag, created by author Corinne Duyvis, was still two years away. That said, neither idea came out of the blue. In fact, each was a direct response to the doleful statistics in children’s publishing and the status quo dynamic that’s persisted for generations. Meanwhile, Nigerian author Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s seminal Ted Talk, “The Danger of a Single Story,” had circulated widely and I’d been reading a lot of recent pieces that build on Dr. Sims Bishop’s groundbreaking work. There was a tangible movement demanding more equity in publishing.

Historically, many of the communities served by MLC were underrepresented or didn’t see themselves in the books and learning materials they encountered every day. In many cases, culturally authentic books and quality mentor texts that feature characters who look, sound and live like many of MLC’s program participants simply didn’t exist. So, we already knew that lack of inclusion and literal empty spaces on the bookshelf were a perennial problem. Part of our solution was to build on Dr. Krashen’s ideas and say, if readers learn to read by reading, let’s do that with writing, too. We flipped things around and said, we can elevate student literacy levels via the creation of the mentor texts we need.

A few years after that, the core model came to fruition during a multi-year project with an organization I cofounded called the Zongo Story Project. Beginning in 2014, my colleague Emily Williamson worked with young students in Cape Coast, Ghana, to create a picture book that was both the authentic story the children wanted to tell and a mentor text for future story workshops. Eventually, after numerous rewrites and many iterations, the result was our first book, originally published in Ghana, called “Gizo-Gizo: A Tale from the Zongo Lagoon.” It’s a delightful, colorful picture book that went on to win a Children’s Africana Book Award for Best Book, Young Readers in 2016. We continue to use it throughout story workshops in Ghana and other communities, too.

Back at the Humphrey School, in the run-up to all of this, I’d gotten into the idea of “perpetual beta”—just sort of moving forward before you have all the answers. Our goal was to create a well-curated collection of high-quality mentor texts that resonate with communities of readers who’ve been sidelined or ignored. In practice, we didn’t know if we’d use print or on-demand, partner with a third party, or simply run down to Kinko’s and print off a bunch of copies. Whatever form the books took and how they got into the world was a secondary concern. In that sense, it all happened backwards. We started with a model to create a certain kind of book and that grew into a business. It’s a slow, continually evolving process.

Once a book is published, how does it become a tangible teaching tool? Which of your books has achieved this at a high level?

We use “Gizo-Gizo” all the time, in all kinds of different ways. The workshops we run in Ghana through Zongo Story Project, which is basically a sister entity to Full Circle, are highly focused on fiction and creating original stories. We start with the basics of character, setting, and action and give kids the tools to craft the stories they want to tell, exploring and creating together by looking deeply at how stories are built.

The character Gizo-Gizo, which in the West African Hausa storytelling tradition translates to something like “spidery spider” or “the spider with spiderlike qualities,” is a much beloved and well-known protagonist. So the kids connect with him immediately. All of the illustrations are also based on local textiles and patterns and the color palette you see in and around Cape Coast. It’s a mirror book for a lot of Ghanaian students and a sliding glass door for kids all over the world. So, when we use it in workshops, we not only talk about the story that’s on the page, but the creative choices behind the words and pictures. It’s a concrete example of how you turn your ideas into reality, using basic practices that can be learned and replicated.

Saymoukda Vongsay’s incredible book, “When Everything Was Everything,” illustrated by Cori Lin, followed a different path to publication and is unequivocally a deeply personal, autobiographical work. That said, we use it in classrooms, libraries, and community centers throughout the Twin Cities with young writers of all ages. Of course, there are likely more entry points for kids from Southeast Asian communities, especially Lao and Hmong, but there are also multiple bridges to other readers, too.

One of the story’s devices is the attention to tangible objects—red-handled scissors, a bag of Funyons, candy, number two pencils, miscellaneous cassette tapes—and how those objects represent a bigger, more intricate personal narrative. So we talk about curation, metaphor, and how everyday things can represent or evoke the feelings that are hard to put into words. We guide students through a series of exercises that help them to curate specific objects and moments representative of their own story. We teach them how to shape their own narrative and begin to unleash the multitude of stories each of them contains.

What is your long-term goal for Full Circle?

As much as I love using our books in the classroom, story time at home is where the magic can happen. Vongsay’s book was largely created for that purpose. With concrete, highly distinctive imagery and themes—including consciously untranslated Lao and Hmong words and phrases—it’s probably the first lap book made specifically for Lao immigrants and refugees, and their children who were born in this country.

I think writer Elizabeth Tran’s heartfelt review, published recently in diaCRITICS, got right to the heart of what we’re trying to do. “‘When Everything Was Everything’ is a spinner of memories,” she wrote. “It’s an emotional unraveling I get to experience while holding my two children in my lap and explaining, line by line and word by word, the humanity of linking past with present, children with parents, heritage with intimate culture.” A few paragraphs later she called it, “a book that is to be surgically opened, investigated, and followed in many directions. It’s a labyrinth of thought, a time machine, and a cultural dreamscape meant to be shared and taught and remembered.”

It’s gratifying to read a review like that and know the book connected so intimately and so deeply with some readers. Of course, not everyone is going to experience the book the same way, and that’s pretty much the point. What we’re really after is a multiplier effect. By using our books in the classroom, we seek to catalyze a new generation of creative storytellers for whom inclusivity is automatic.

What books do you have coming out?

A couple of weeks ago, we finalized a digital distribution deal with Afrocomix, which has offices in both Accra and Nairobi, so they’ve got a great presence across much of the African continent, especially Ghana, Nigeria and Kenya. They’re going to be our exclusive distributor for a new chapter book series called “Trotro Trio.” It’s a fantasy adventure series that focuses on three friends–two siblings and their cousin–who travel through time and space across the African continent, experiencing key historical moments firsthand.

The plan is to publish physical books eventually, but since so many young African readers get so much of their content via cell phones, we’re starting with ebooks first, and we’ll see where it goes from there. The first four books in the series are already written, with others at various stages. You’ll be able to get the first three chapters of the first book, “Blast to the Past,” for free, via the Afrocomix app on Android devices.

Not long after that we’ll drop another picture book with a Ghanaian connection, “Black Barbie,” by animator and cartoonist Comfort Arthur, who’s currently U.K.-based. It’s a picture book adaptation of her multi-award winning film short by the same name. Adapting it into a kid’s book has been an amazing creative journey because we started with the words and images from the film, but we’ve ended up in a different place. Part of that is simply the passage of time between the two projects and wanting to keep it fresh, but it’s also a big reminder that different media make very different demands. It’s another lap book that doubtlessly will foster some uncomfortable but vital conversations. To paraphrase Elizabeth Tran writing about Vongsay’s book, it’s not exactly the kind of book a young reader will seek out for the sheer joy of the story—it’s  much more than that. If the same can be said for most of the books we produce, then I think Full Circle will be a success.