Interview: Hearts Beat Still—Maggie Schmieder, Author of Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park

Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park is author Maggie Duplace Schmieder’s attempt to make sense out of something senseless. She and her family attended the Highland Park Independence Day parade this July, where a mass shooter opened fire, killing 7 people and injuring 48 more. Schmieder, and her family, escaped—unharmed yet not unaffected, but also inspired.

Born in Cincinnati, Schmieder moved to Chicago to assume an elementary school teaching position in Glencoe, Illinois. After 15 years she began teaching Educational and Life Skills at New Trier High School’s Northfield Campus. She, her husband, and then-infant daughter became Highland Park residents in 2013, moving into the Ravinia neighborhood.

Along the way, Schmieder added “writer” to her resume by publishing two children’s books. Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park is her third, a creative attempt to help children, in Highland Park and elsewhere, learn how to deal with the trauma of gun violence. She answered a few questions about her book and what she hopes to accomplish with it.

If you’re comfortable with it, can you share your family’s experiences at Highland Park’s Independence Day parade? 

My family and I were thrilled to be back at the Fourth of July parade for the first time in a few years. My daughters picked out festive red, white, and blue to wear and our next door neighbor went downtown early in the morning to lay out blankets and set up chairs for everyone in between Dairy Queen and Walker Bros [in Port Clinton Square]. We left the house excited and energized for the day with plans to watch the parade, then migrate to Sunset Park for the festival. We smiled for the camera and took pictures, chatting with friends and neighbors as we watched the first few paraders march past.

Our daughters [were] on the street, hands outstretched for candy, [when] we heard a steady popping sound. I immediately thought it was gunshots and yelled at my husband [Derek] and daughters to get back. Derek grabbed the girls and ushered them back toward Dairy Queen. I remember watching the announcers duck down and topple chairs coming off the grandstand steps. I repeatedly yelled to Derek and my friends to run and hurry up. We fled around the corner of Port Clinton Square onto First Street around Lefty’s Pizza with other spectators.

There was silence for a bit, a lot of confusion, and people trying to get around one another. We hid behind the concrete service entrance wall under Sushi Badaya, counting each other to make sure our friends and family members were accounted for. There was another flurry of gunshots. We continued around the corner, toward the parking garage entrance, where our car and friend’s car were parked next to one another. Not knowing where the shooting was coming from, we wavered about going down to the car for fear that the shooter(s) was on foot and hiding below.

Photo Credit Dan Kelly

Bravely, my husband ran down to get the car. My two friends and our children waited, hunched next to the wall while we called their spouses, who they were separated from, to make sure they were safe. Thankfully they were. Derek and our friend parked next to us, and pulled up to the garage exit. We quickly got into our cars, multiple families piling in. As we exited the garage, police officers flew up and got out with rifles in hand. We drove home, still unsure of exactly what had happened, locked our doors, and watched it all unfold on television.

When did creating Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park first occur to you? 

I self-published two other books, one of which was written to help prepare my daughter and help her understand her upcoming surgery to get a pacemaker. She was four at the time and I needed a way for her to understand what was happening. I needed to make sure the story wasn’t scary and provided comfort. Two years later, I decided to self-publish, Wynnie’s Heart Powers Up, so other children who experience the same thing have a story to share with their family and friends.

In the days after the parade shooting, I was spinning, thinking about ways that I could help. Within a week, I started retelling the story in my head in the same type of rhyme I’ve written in before. It felt as if it was my way of processing the events with my own children. I grabbed my phone and started typing so I wouldn’t lose that immediate accuracy. It evolved from there and it became my singular focus over the coming weeks and month. 

As a special education teacher can you discuss how your background and training informed the creation of the book?

Author Maggie Schmieder,
Photo Credit Ebby Schmieder

I use social stories in my classroom to explain confusing or abstract concepts to my students. They are often rooted in social situations and aim to teach children how to manage their feelings and behavior. Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park: A Story of the Highland Park July 4th Parade comes from a similar place. I was hopeful that I could retell a very challenging and horrific situation in an age-appropriate way—one that families were comfortable sharing together. 

What do you hope to accomplish with your book and what sort of response have you received? 

My initial hope was that families would be able to read Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park together, as a way to process and talk about what happened in our beautiful town. It has evolved over the past months into hoping that the book keeps the story alive. We can’t ever forget what happened here or normalize gun violence, as it continues terrorizing communities. 

The feedback has been nothing short of incredible. I’ve received so many messages sharing how grateful people are for the book. The most impactful message came from someone who shared the book with some of Mr. [Nicholas] Toledo’s family. Mr. Toledo was one of those who lost their life that day, and one of the seven victims whom the book is dedicated to. She shared that the family “loved it and was so touched—that she was genuinely surprised and overwhelmed with emotion.” That, coupled with donating more than 50 books to local schools and libraries, has made this very rewarding. 

Is there anything I didn’t ask that you wish I had asked? 

Highland Park is such a special place and community. The residents and those connected to the town deserve to heal and move forward from this tragedy with love and hope. What I have witnessed among the community in these past weeks has been nothing short of beautiful. The tight weave of Highland Park’s fabric was ripped open on July 4, and will be mended through love and projects like this, the memorial, fundraisers, and activism. I’m humbled if Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park has helped support that in any way. 

Maggie Schmieder’s website is located here. Hopeful Hearts in Highland Park can be purchased on Amazon. She will be selling and signing books at the Highland Park Literary Fest at The Lot (1707 St. Johns Avenue, Highland Park) Saturday, September 10, from 12:30–2 p.m.

Dan Kelly
Dan Kelly

Dan Kelly has been a writer and editor for 30 years, contributing work to Chicago Magazine, the Chicago Reader, Chicago Journal, The Baffler, Harvard Magazine, The University of Chicago Magazine, and others.