Steven Llanusa may be president of the local school board and an active volunteer in an array of community organizations, including the Kiwanis Club of Claremont. He is, however, foremost a teacher, currently helming a 5th grade class at a magnet school in Bloomington.
So it makes sense that, when the COURIER sat down with him to discuss what he’s been reading lately, the first book he named was a children’s title.
He’s currently reading the Newbery Medal-winning The Westing Game, a 1979 murder mystery written by Ellen Raskin. The book follows the adventures of millionaire Sam Westing’s 16 heirs, who are challenged to solve the secret of the man’s death. Each heir is a suspect.
“It’s a great book for teaching character development and foreshadowing. I find good foreshadowing to be the mark of a good author,” Mr. Llanusa said. “I’ve already told them we’ll reread it once we finish it, so we can see how the clues are developed by the author.”
He has also read some of the children’s literature/ young adult series that have made a splash with his students in recent years, such as the adventures of Katniss of the Hunger Games. He was impressed with the many incidences of foreshadowing in J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books and the well-drawn characters in Phillip Pulman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, best known for the film adaptation The Golden Compass.
Along with biography, Mr. Llanusa’s favorite genre is science fiction/fantasy, so he was swept up into Mr. Pullman’s fictional universe, filled with witches, armored bears and the Northern Lights, which are imbued with mysterious powers. Accompanied by her ferret Pan (every child has a magical animal soul mate), a young tomboy named Lyra must do no less than save the world.
“The books have the universal themes like choice and destiny, even though they take place in a fantastical setting,” Mr. Llanusa said.
The board member recalled how important reading was to him when he was a child. The first book he remembers reading was Dr. Seuss’ Green Eggs and Ham.
“I don’t know if I read it so much as memorized it,” he joked.
By the time he was his students’ age, he was entranced with Hugh Lofting’s Doctor Doolittle stories, a dozen books about a doctor who can speak to animals. The series began as illustrated stories Mr. Lofting sent to his children from the trenches of World War II. Composing them which him a bit of escape and ensured that his letters home weren’t filled with the horrors of war.
Young Steven also enjoyed Little Big Books, a series of small, compact books in which each page of text was accompanied by an illustration. Mr. Llanusa’s favorites among these were the adaptations of literary classics such as Tom Sawyer, Alice in Wonderland and Tarzan.
His early love of reading has never faded. Mr. Llanusa, whose bedroom features three jam-packed bookcases, often has several books going at one time. Recent reads include abooks pertaining to education and today’s young people.
One of these is Barbara Coloroso’s The Bully, The Bullied and the Bystander: From Prechool to High School—How Parents and Teachers Can Help Break the Cycle of Violence. Mr. Llanusa said he has become increasingly concerned with how to help prevent bullying, particularly in the growing area of cyber-bullying. It’s a topic pertinent to his teaching job, because his students are at an age where they are just beginning to experiment with social media such as Facebook and Twitter.
He has also been reading Flip Your Classroom: Reach Every Student in Every Class Every Day by Jonathan Bergmann and Aaron Sams. Among other ideas, the authors suggest that teachers record their lectures and have students listen to them before coming to class. Class time can then be used for students to discuss concepts from the lecture, ask questions and try out problems.
Mr. Llanusa said he isn’t sure how practical this modus operandi would be at the elementary school level. He can, however, envision it being helpful in a high school math or science course, in which the instructor teaches several sections of the same subject.
Mr. Llanusa doesn’t always confine his reading to the topic of education. He recently completed My Inventions: The Autobiography of Nikola Tesla, the memoirs of a vastly influential scientist born in the Austro-Hungarian Empire. Tesla most famously invented the alternating current method of harnessing electricity.
“It was a great read. He wrote in the early 20th century, so the vocabulary is richer than a lot of today’s writing,” he said. “Tesla describes almost kinesthesia, where he could imagine things visually and completely. He didn’t need models or mock-ups [of his inventions]. He could do mental simulations.”
Now he is onto a biography called Alan Turing: The Enigma, an account of the life of a pioneering World War II code-breaker. He also regularly pores through the Sunday LA Times, the Claremont COURIER, MacWorld and other technical magazines as well as the LGBT-focused publications Out and the Advocate.
How does Mr. Llanusa find the time to read so much, given his many responsibilities? One explanation is this: When he is not listening to NPR, he speeds up his daily commute by listening to audio books. He also plays audio books when he and his family—which includes his husband, Claremont pediatrician Glenn Miya, and three adult sons—embark on road trips. It’s also a matter of priorities.
“My mom always said you have enough time and money for what you really want,” he said.
Mr. Llanusa often borrows books and audiobooks from the Claremont Library. He also loves the Little Libraries, unofficial book-swapping sites that are spread across the city. He frequents one such book nook in particular, located at a residence near to Wolfe’s Market.
When he wants a copy of a book he suspects he will be reading again, he shops for reading material at Amazon, Audible.com or at thrift stores. Mr. Llanusa has several titles and authors he turns to again and again. One perennial favorite is Umberto Eco’s The Name of the Rose, a murder mystery whose setting is an Italian monastery in the year 1327.
Mr. Llanusa also finds himself returning to the works of Paul Monette, an author who wrote prolifically in the genres of fiction and nonfiction before dying of AIDS in 1995. Along with novels and essays, Mr. Monette was a master at autobiography, charting coming to terms with his homosexuality in Becoming a Man: Half a Life Story and his cataclysmic illness in Borrowed Time: An AIDS Memoir.
Less heavy but no less beloved to Mr. Llanusa are the works of Steven R. Donaldson, an American writer specializing in the sci-i, fantasy and mystery genres. His most popular works are the 10-volume fantasy series The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant. Thomas is a sardonic leper who is ostracized by society. As is the case in many compelling stories, his ultimate job is to save the world.
“I read many books repeatedly. I don’t understand people who say they’ve already read that book, as if they’ve gotten everything from the book in one read,” Mr. Llanusa said. “Maybe they do, but I don’t.”