58 pages 1 hour read

Neal Shusterman

The Schwa Was Here

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 2004

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Summary and Study Guide


Wise-cracking eighth-grader Anthony “Antsy” Bonano befriends Calvin Schwa, a nondescript boy who is virtually invisible to his classmates in Neal Shusterman’s humorous young adult novel, The Schwa Was Here (2004). As Antsy and the Schwa experiment on his invisibility, they meet the crotchety neighborhood recluse Old Man Crawley and fall for his granddaughter, Lexie, who is blind. Antsy learns about the Schwa’s challenging family life and makes discoveries about his own sense of self, his role in his family, and how to be a good friend. With offbeat humor and sensitivity, Shusterman explores themes of identity-building, perception, and the important influence of family and friendship. The Schwa Was Here received a starred review from School Library Journal and won the Boston Globe-Horn Book Award for Fiction and Poetry (2005). The novel is the first in the Antsy Bonano series, followed by Doing Time (2008) and Ship Out of Luck (2013).

This guide refers to the 2010 Puffin Books edition.

Content Warning: The novel contains some discussion of suicidal ideation.

Plot Summary

Antsy Bonano lives in Brooklyn, New York, with his lively Italian family. Mom and Dad vie to be best cook while Antsy’s older brother, Frankie, gets perfect grades, and younger sister, Christina, gets all the attention. Antsy feels overlooked in the middle: His only contribution to the family is redirecting parental squabbles.

Antsy and his friends, Howie and Ira, meet the Schwa after throwing a plastic mannequin off a bridge as a stress test for Antsy’s dad’s company. Calvin Schwa is difficult to see or remember. Ira, having heard creepy and sordid rumors, is suspicious of the Schwa and instantly dislikes him. Antsy, however, identifies with the Schwa’s invisibility.

The boys scientifically test the “Schwa Effect” and discover that kids and teachers at school barely notice the Schwa. Antsy stops hanging out with Howie and Ira as he and the Schwa make money off dares with Antsy as manager and the Schwa as invisible perpetrator. For one dare, the Schwa enters the apartment of reclusive, rich Old Man Crawley, who lives above his restaurant with his dogs. Mr. Crawley, using a wheelchair because of a broken hip, catches them. He is sarcastic and scornful but will not report them to the police if they become his dog walkers. The boys agree, and Antsy gradually comes to like the imperious old man.

Antsy grows closer to the Schwa and learns that when the Schwa was five, his mother left him in a shopping cart in a supermarket and disappeared. The Schwa takes care of his dad, a housepainter who fell and suffered a head injury that left him with memory problems. The Schwa has a collection of paper clips, each of which has a famous connection. Antsy realizes that the Schwa fears disappearing like his mother.

Mr. Crawley pays Antsy to befriend Lexie, his visiting granddaughter, who is blind. Lexie is Antsy’s age and is confident and perceptive. Antsy falls for her, but so does the Schwa. Antsy refuses to step back so the Schwa can date Lexie. The Schwa does not give up. Antsy is crushed when Lexie suggests that the Schwa escort her and Antsy should walk the dog, only to find later that Lexie wants to date Antsy after all.

Antsy’s mom and dad have an argument about who is the better cook. Antsy, fed up, refuses to placate them and tells the truth: Dad is the better cook. Mom walks out but later returns, and Antsy worries that his parents will divorce. Mom decides to take a French cooking class and work outside the home. Although these family changes worry Antsy, Mom assures him she and Dad are not getting a divorce.

Mr. Crawley falls again, and Antsy accompanies him to the hospital. He learns that Mr. Crawley fears losing his independence and reputation and going to an assisted-living facility. Antsy enjoys dating Lexie but worries about the Schwa, who believes Lexie is dating him. Lexie assures Antsy that the Schwa knows they are just friends.

The Schwa is hurt when he sees Lexie kiss Antsy. Antsy confronts Lexie, who explains she wanted to date them both. Antsy stops dating her because he does not want to hurt the Schwa. Antsy learns the Schwa’s secret plan to stay visible. Antsy pursues the truth behind the Schwa’s mom’s disappearance.

Antsy interviews Gunther, the Night Butcher at the supermarket who was there when the Schwa was abandoned and knows what happened. Antsy and Lexie “kidnap” Mr. Crawley to get him out of his house and take him on a helicopter ride. Both infuriated and excited, he vows revenge.

The Schwa takes Antsy to a deserted part of Brooklyn to show him a giant billboard with the Schwa’s face and name on it, facing an expressway. Antsy is impressed until he realizes the road is closed for construction and no one will see the billboard. Defeated, the Schwa wants to disappear. Antsy and Lexie take him to hear Gunther’s story.

Gunther relates that the Schwa’s mom was sad and crying. Oscar, the day butcher, comforted her, and the two happily ran away together, leaving the Schwa. The Schwa rages at his mom. Antsy worries that he should not have told the Schwa the truth since it hurt him so much, but now the Schwa knows that he is not invisible. The Schwa discovers that his mom wrote letters for years and tried to call, but his dad hid the letters. The Schwa vows to find his mom and get an apology.

When Antsy’s dad is fired from his position, Antsy correctly blames Mr. Crawley. Antsy confronts Mr. Crawley, but the old man offers Antsy’s dad a dream job in his new restaurant. Antsy discovers that the Schwa’s house is empty and for sale and their phone is disconnected: The Schwa has disappeared. Antsy draws graffiti of the Schwa’s face and writes “The Schwa was here” all over Brooklyn to keep him visible. Antsy realizes that the Schwa has left to find his mom.

Howie and Ira become Mr. Crawley’s dog walkers. Antsy and Lexie, friends, “pretend” date to annoy Mr. Crawley’s son. Antsy’s parents make Mr. Crawley’s restaurant a success. Antsy gets a letter from the Schwa: He found his mom and they are happy together. A paperclip holds a photo of the Schwa and his mom on a beach, smiling. The Schwa promises to remember Antsy if Antsy remembers him.