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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.

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Schlitz perches on a stool in a fifth-grade classroom, coaching the children as they practice their monologues. This year, for the first time, the students can use the hard-bound, Newbery-winning edition, with the stunning illustrations by Robert Byrd. As she listens, Schlitz's lips move slightly, almost imperceptibly, following the words as they're recited. "That was beautiful," she says, clapping for a student's character portrayal. She is clearly moved by the performance; Schlitz wrote these pieces to be performed, to be spoken, to have a life beyond the page.

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Schlitz is a spinner of tales, and she plays the part well. She is known as a mesmerizing storyteller, performing more than 100 stories a year for her library classes. Her amateur acting experience helps her bring the stories to life, and years of writing plays for children's theaters, locally and nationally, has honed her dramatic techniques. She even looks the part of archetypal fairy godmother, with a fountain of waist-long white hair, a penchant for flowing skirts and blousy tops, a weakness for floppy hats, and eyes that do, honestly, twinkle.

But she's never played the part of famous author before. "The first couple of weeks I had a big bouquet of flowers by my bed, and when I woke up in the middle of the night, and the flowers were still there, I thought, OK, it's true, I really did win the Newbery Award," she says.

The mail pours in: the congratulations, the strangers seeking advice "about things I know nothing about," the invitations to speak. The first printing of her book has completely sold out, and a second printing – with the Newbery gold sticker – is yet to be released. Bookstores have waiting lists, while entrepreneurial dealers are selling first editions of "Good Masters" to collectors for up to $120. Schlitz is simply amazed.

"The one thing that hasn't changed a whole lot is my writing, and that was a big relief to me," she says. "I sat down to work on Chapter 28 of the book I'm working on now, and the anxious person who is sure no sentence is good enough was still at my side."

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Schlitz writes at her dining-room table, setting down first drafts in longhand – with a fountain pen. With her day job at the library, she has to snatch writing time: mornings, Saturdays, school holidays, and summer vacation. "I'm not very disciplined," she insists. "I have to trick myself and reward myself and coax myself."

For years she wrote stories with no prospect of publication. "It was like throwing them down a well," she says. It's different now. With four well-received books ("The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy;" "The Bearskinner," a retelling of a Brothers Grimm tale; "A Drowned Maiden's Hair;" and "Good Masters"), her editors at Candlewick are eager for more.

The range of Schlitz's books has also captured the attention of the publishing industry. "I was amazed," says Roger Sutton, editor in chief of The Horn Book magazine. "I couldn't believe the books were written by the same author. She's found a way to write in a completely different voice, different tone, different style. That's her gift as a storyteller."

But a Newbery laureate has certain responsibilities, and Schlitz is expected to deliver an acceptance speech at the American Library Association (which awards the Newbery) convention in Anaheim, Calif., in June. "I've been reading through the past speeches, hoping to find a dismal one that will give me a sense of confidence, but they're all wonderful," she says.

Since winning the award, Schlitz has been too busy to make any extravagant purchases beyond a pair of red gloves to match her winter coat. The Newbery will probably not bring riches – "Good Masters" is no Harry Potter franchise – but she plans to splurge on a "spectacular" new hat. It will be a suitable replacement for the tiara.

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