'The Schwa Was Here' Is A Kids' Book With A Message Every Adult Needs To Hear


When I was in the eighth grade, I read Neal Shusterman's The Schwa Was Here for the first time, and it quickly became one of my favorite books. But little did I know that the lessons I learned from The Schwa Was Here would reach me far into adulthood. In fact, I still read it at least once a year.

The Schwa Was Here is colorfully narrated by Antsy Bonano, a wise-ass kid from Brooklyn. The story begins when Antsy befriends Calvin Schwa (known in neighborhood legend as "The Schwa"), a classmate who is "functionally invisible" — that is, he blends in with his surroundings and is so aggressively normal that people don't notice or remember him. Antsy, The Schwa, and their friends begin to conduct experiments to figure out what's really going on with "the Schwa effect," eventually using The Schwa's abilities to make money off their classmates. When a bet goes awry, Anthony and The Schwa find themselves forcibly employed by the neighborhood hermit, and they eventually become close with his blind granddaughter. But as all these hijinks ensue, The Schwa faces some serious questions about how he fits into this world and fears that one day he might disappear altogether.

The Schwa Was Here by Neal Shusterman, $6.99, Amazon

If you take a quick glance a the Goodreads reviews for the book, you'll see that "The Schwa Effect" has resonated with hundreds of readers who have felt functionally invisible in their own lives. One Goodreads reviewer writes, "There's a story I tell in trainings about a high school where teachers were given a list of students and asked to put a gold star next to students they knew. At the end of the day, the result was a classic bell curve: a small group of over-achievers known by all, a larger group of average kids known by some, and a small group known by just about no teacher: that's Calvin Schwa."

I would argue that the experience of not feeling seen is heightened in adulthood. You don't have school to tether you to a certain group of people. You don't live in a dorm. You have to work hard to connect to people and maintain relationships.


In adulthood, I've found that making people feel seen is priceless. Once, at a wedding, my friend observed that the groom was talking to all the people who had purposefully stood aside from the crowd. Behavior like this is too rare, but it is certainly wonderful. Anyone who has ever felt lost in a sea of people knows how good it feels when someone takes the time to talk to you, to remember your name, and to listen what you have to say. As I move about my life, I think about this often in the context of the Schwa effect: What can I do to make someone feel a little less invisible?

Similarly, The Schwa Was Here also demonstrates the importance of using the power you have to lift others up. Take for instance this early interaction between Antsy and the Schwa. The two are in science class, and The Schwa raises his hand to answer every question, but their teacher, Mr. Werthog, doesn't notice. Antsy says:

"The Schwa turns to me, grumbling under his breath. 'He never calls on me.'
That's when I raise my hand.
'Ah! Mr. Boanano. Do you have the answer?
'No, but I'll bet the Schwa does.'
He looks at me like I'm speaking Latin. "Excuse me?"
'You know: Calvin Schwa.'
Werthog turns his head slightly and his eyes refocus. 'Calvin!' he says, like he's surprised he's even here. 'Can you (kiss) give us he answer?'"

After The Schwa answers Mr. Wrthog's questions, he whispers to Antsy. "Thanks. At least now he won't count me absent today."

This is a fairly small moment, but it's a prime example of how, with very little effort on his part, Antsy is able to make a big difference for The Schwa. It's very true in real life that it is hard to insert yourself into the spotlight or even to break into a social group, but it is very easy for someone else to pull you in. As this scene demonstrates, it's important to constantly be thinking of the large and small ways in which you can extend a hand out to people who don't have the same privilege you do.

The Schwa effect may not technically be real, but the lessons we can learn from it are certainly important. Making the effort to reach out to someone and listen to them might feel like a small act, but it can certainly make an enormous impact.