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.

Andy Nelson
Andy Nelson

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.

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."

• • •

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.

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.

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."

• • •

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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