Shy school librarian finds success as author
Laura Schlitz lives out her own real-life fable – her children's book is 'discovered,' wins a prestigious award, and fame comes knocking.
The school bus honked and pulled over, startling Laura Schlitz as she was taking a walk in her residential neighborhood here. The bus driver leaned out and called to Ms. Schlitz: "Aren't you the lady who won that big book award? I recognize you!" It is at such moments that Laura Amy Schlitz, whose book "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village" recently won the 2008 Newbery Medal, the most prestigious prize in children's literature, realizes that she is not simply a school librarian anymore.Skip to next paragraph
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The story of Schlitz winning the Newbery Medal has all the makings of a modern fairy tale: The shy school librarian who toils for years in obscurity, writing stories for the children at her school in her spare time, but finally summons the courage to submit her work to publishers. She suffers initial rejection, but then her fortunes turn, her manuscript is plucked from the slush pile by a clever editorial assistant (at Candlewick Press in Cambridge, Mass.), which then publishes four of her books in quick succession, all greeted by glowing reviews.
Cut to the scene of a phone ringing in pre-dawn January darkness, informing Schlitz (in her nightgown) that one of those books has won the Newbery Medal, the Pulitzer of children's literature. Then a montage of flower bouquets, cascades of congratulatory notes, and the dazzle of television lights when she is summoned to New York to appear on the "Today Show."
But of all the strange and wondrous events that overtook Schlitz when she won the award, the one that meant the most to her was the impromptu gathering of a thousand students and faculty in the gymnasium of the Park School of Baltimore, the independent K-12 school where she has been a librarian and storyteller for almost two decades. She was still wearing the prop-shop tiara that colleagues had placed on her head that morning, and the students gave her several long and loud standing ovations.
"They were so happy for me, they wanted to rejoice with me," she recalls, and the memory still brings tears to her eyes.
Park students enjoy a unique relationship with her award-winning book: It was written for them, it is dedicated to them, and they know its words by heart. "It's been our secret. Now the secret is out," says Schlitz's Park School colleague Sharen Pula. "She's been our treasure for all these years. Now she's a national treasure."
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Long before it won the Newbery Medal, long before it was even a book, the text of "Good Masters" was held in the hands of a generation of Park fifth graders. They held it as a performance script, a crinkled sheaf of photocopied pages, as they acted out the monologues dramatizing medieval village life that are now collected into the book. For 12 years, Schlitz's monologues (and a few dialogues) have been a central part of Park's fifth-grade curriculum. "I wrote it for the Park students," says Schlitz, who penned them in the summer of 1996, sponsored by a faculty development grant, "as a kind of gift to them."
The monologues are finely crafted miniatures of life in 13th-century England, rendered in rich language, metered verse, and rhythmic prose. They offer an unflinching depiction of feudal life – this is not Camelot, as one reviewer noted – filled with violence, poverty, crime, pestilence, and early death. Weaving in prodigious research, Schlitz creates a detailed mosaic of a place in time (there have been comparisons to Chaucer's "Canterbury Tales") studded with small gems of character portrait.
Each year the Park fifth-graders choose the village character they find most compelling – Edgar, the falconer's son; Giles the beggar; Isobel, the lord's daughter; or any of the roughly two dozen young denizens of Schlitz's village – and spend months learning about the Middle Ages through their character.