Release Date: Oct 2004
Greetings, I’m the Literature Critic. I read it so you don’t have to! Today’s book that we’re going to take a look at is The Schwa Was Here, by Neal Shusterman. I first saw book when I was in 7th grade, and my interest level for this story was raised when our teacher divided us into groups and my group had this book. It was a very peculiar title- what is a “Schwa”? Why is there a kid with glasses traced with dotted lines appearing in multiple spots in the city scene like we’re playing a game of Where’s Waldo? Why is the restaurant called “Crawley’s”? Well, I had those questions answered for me when I read this novel but there were many other questions that were left unanswered. At the time, my group members were more interested in talking than reading, so we never finished the book. We had to read one at a time, but the other readers took like 8 minutes to finish just two paragraphs, which to me I would think that this could be executed in a shorter amount of time. The result was that I never grasped the story fully and what would happen to the main characters became a mystery
In what I believe was the middle of my 8th grade year, I found the book in my middle school library. It was untouched, so I decided to give this another chance. After I finished it, well color me confused and let down. For some reason I couldn’t bring myself to recommend The Schwa Was Here to anyone. Maybe it was the bland characters, or the story, or some other poorly-developed elements thrown in, but whatever the reason, I did not feel satisfied with the overall product.
So the book came into existence when its author, Neal Shusterman, was inspired by how one of his classmates in school seemed to blend into the environment; his shirt blended into his seat, and when he raised his hand, it blended in with a pole behind him. He also used the word “schwa”, because it is in fact an unstressed vowel, like the “a” in “above”, and most people don’t know about it. I have to admit, that is pretty creative. This is what the unstressed vowel looks like: “ə”.
The story is about a boy named Anthony Bonano who is strangely known as “Antsy”. He talks about a kid that is called “The Schwa” and about how the rumors surrounding him claim that he can become invisible. So after an odd and overall pointless introduction where Anthony and his friends attempt to make a movie by throwing a mannequin named “Manny Bullpucky” off of a bridge, they agree to test the Schwa’s ability to be invisible by doing what I call the “Unthinkable Challenges”: they have the Schwa go to class in the nude, steal things, and really people start getting interested in him. And honestly, I love the beginning; it really does create a lot of mystery about the Schwa, and as we finish each chapter, we want to know more about him. It’s true- touches like this can allow us to show respect and compassion towards the characters that we learn about. And in The Schwa Was Here, we really do have characters that you can love.
But Anthony and the Schwa get in trouble when they take a dare which ends unsuccessfully with the Schwa getting caught stealing a possession from a fearsome neighbor- Mr. Crawley. That’s when the book goes downhill in my perspective. The two boys have to do community service for Crawley. He’s an elderly guy who owns a restaurant, and has lots of dogs. He has lots of money, but only spends it if he has good reasons. Once again, we do get a character that you can grow to accept and enjoy. In fact, Mr. Crawley expands on this by being a “red herring”-type character; at first we hate Mr. Crawley because he doesn’t understand the boys and constantly makes them work, but we learn that he actually has a good heart and people are just too judgmental. But then we start drifting into uncharted, unwelcome territory: first we learn that Mr. Crawley has dogs named after the 7 sins and virtues. Now not only is that disturbing beyond belief, but it doesn’t have any importance in the story; you would think that they would explore that fact a little more and give Mr. Crawley a whole new perspective, but instead, they just mention it and continue on.
Then there’s Lexie. She gets introduced just as you are beginning to wonder what other misadventures the Schwa and Anthony get themselves into. Lexie is Mr. Crawley’s blind granddaughter. Mr. Crawley has Anthony take care of her, and the two develop a relationship. But then the Schwa has feelings for Lexie, too, and he and Anthony duke it out over just one girl. It’s about as cliché as you would imagine. Additionally, Lexie just runs in and becomes the spotlight, so the Schwa becomes more of a background character than a main one. At least we DO get some background history on the Schwa- the three kids decide to solve the mystery surrounding him, but at this point I was so let down by this book that I expected Mr. Crawley in a monster costume chasing the three around like in Scooby Doo. There were also background characters (like Anthony’s mother) that, by tradition for most books, did not become likable compared to some of the others because they were bland and forgettable. A little more effort into those characters would make this book through my eyes salvageable.
I’ll stop there- not only will I not reveal the book’s spoilers, but because I’m getting tired of saying the words “Schwa”, “Lexie”, and sometimes even “Crawley”. I just personally found the book to be one that started out smoothly, but then abruptly falls off of its motorcycle and eventually crashes and burns. It starts out flawlessly with some characters that appear to be developed well. Aside from that, I remember so little- most of the characters, events, and even the dialogue are forgettable. Neal Shusterman is a good author, and he has made many fine novels. However, I do feel that The Schwa Was Here is relatively weaker than his other books. As such, I would read another one of his and steer clear from this story that might as well be invisible. I’m the Literature Critic. I read it so you don’t have to!