Dozens of spirited fifth-graders file into Park School’s lower-school library at 8:45 in the morning. They fan out across padded benches along the back wall or plop down on a map-of-the-world rug covering the floor. Chatting in clusters of two and three, some discuss books they’ve brought along; Diary of a Wimpy Kid and The Baby-Sitters Club are particularly well represented. A girl leans across her friend to comment on the Splendors and Glooms book held by a boy sitting nearby: “I thought that book was amazing,” she says. “You’re going to love it.” His cheeks simultaneously dimple and redden.
All talk ceases when Laura Amy Schlitz appears, clasps her hands behind her back, and surveys the group. The silence is so abrupt and complete you might wonder what sort of power Schlitz wields over these children. She certainly doesn’t appear intimidating with her flowing purple dress, billowing scarf, and long, white hair pulled back from a moon-shaped face. She exudes a peculiar, fairy godmother-like benevolence and wouldn’t look out of place strolling through a Renaissance Fair. She’s been known to wear a tiara.
A Park librarian since 1991, Schlitz writes the phrases “trial by fire” and “trial by combat” on a white board that’s propped next to her and begins to talk about forms of medieval justice. The former, she says, involves handing the accused a red-hot piece of metal. If the burn heals cleanly, innocence is declared; an infected wound connotes guilt. Trial by combat, she explains, involves knights battling for the honor of the accused.
After that brief introduction, Schlitz launches into a fairy tale, Sir Hermit of the Forest, which revolves around trial by combat. “There was once a knight named Sir Berengar,” she begins. “He was courageous, courteous, and good to look at.”
Her telling is no simple recitation. From memory, Schlitz gives a nuanced performance that steadily builds momentum over the ensuing 20 minutes. After a theatrical pause, she signals a scene change by raising her voice, and her facial expressions and hand gestures underscore important plot points. When the knight pets a tamed deer, for instance, she glances away and smooths the air with her right hand.
Sharen Pula, a fifth-grade teacher at Park for 43 years and close friend of Schlitz’s, looks on, whispering: “Laura does this sort of thing every day. She exudes enthusiasm for learning, and we all benefit.”
The children are captivated. No one fidgets. With each passing minute, they lean into the story a little more. When it ends, they applaud. The librarian wields a simple power—the power of story.
Schlitz’s supreme storytelling skills are also put to the page at bookstores all over the country. The acclaimed author has racked up accolades and awards over the past 10 years. She has become a bit of a celebrity, albeit a reluctant one, at Park School, where posters of her book covers adorn the library walls, and articles about her are mounted around the entrance doors. An issue of School Library Journal features Schlitz on the cover; a newspaper headline declares, “Park School Librarian Wins 2nd Newbery Honor,” a reference to her Splendors and Glooms, which elicited the blush-inducing comment.
Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! won the 2008 Newberry Medal.
Schlitz’s Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village won the 2008 Newbery Medal, an award honoring “the most distinguished contribution to American literature for children.” It vaulted her into the company of fellow Newbery winners such as Madeleine L’Engle (A Wrinkle in Time), E.B. White (Charlotte’s Web), Louis Sachar (Holes), and Marguerite Henry (Misty of Chincoteague).
Schlitz calls the awards “glorious bolts from the blue.” Her books are mostly the product of “ingenuity and spit,” she says.
At Park School, Schlitz’s office is packed with objects both bookish and playful. A bookcase includes volumes on favorite travel destinations such as Venice and Greece, a few New Yorker cartoons are taped to the door, and figurines of William Shakespeare, James Joyce, Mark Twain, Edgar Allan Poe, and Charles Dickens stand along the window ledge that looks out over the library.
Schlitz—who lives in Loch Hill with her beloved cat, Susannah—is mostly a self-taught writer. She’s taken a few writing courses, but steers clear of “how to” books. “I learned to write by telling and reading stories,” she says, between bites of dark chocolate from a tin stashed in her desk.
Her upbringing, she believes, was ideal for nurturing a budding writer. She grew up in northern Baltimore County, when the Hunt Valley area was known mostly for its cornfields. Her mother stayed at home until Schlitz entered the fifth grade, at which point she got a job as a secretary and, for a time, as a stable hand. Her father practiced law and clerked at the U.S. District Court in Baltimore.
Schlitz and her older brother, Paul, bickered like many siblings, but sparked each other’s imaginations, too. “We played elaborate games,” she recalls. “We had a universe of stuffed animals, and we gave them all distinct personalities and interactions.”
Their parents frequently read to them and stocked the house with books. They visited the library so often, they received an award for being the family that checked out the most books. Schlitz was a particularly voracious reader, tearing through children’s classics such as the Little House series, The Black Stallion, and Beezus and Ramona.
Frances Hodgson Burnett’s A Little Princess—in which a rich and pampered Victorian girl loses all her money and gets treated like a servant—touched her deeply. Desperately hungry, the character finds some money to buy food but gives most of it to a beggar child, “because she still thinks of herself as a princess,” says Schlitz. “That book managed to scare me, move my heart, and thrill me, all at the same time.”
Schlitz’s family visited the library so often, they won an award for checking out the most books.
By the time she graduated from Hereford High School, she had discovered theater and wanted to be “the world’s greatest actress,” or at least her generation’s version of Oscar Wilde. “Hereford High was kind of anti-intellectual, so it was not a good fit,” she recalls. “I was a pretentious young person, and most people there considered my vocabulary loathsome.”
Schlitz went on to Goucher College, which proved to be a better fit. She created her own major, aesthetics, because it allowed her to take classes in her favorite subjects: literature, art history, philosophy, and music.
After graduation in 1977, the dream of an acting career didn’t pan out, and Schlitz started working at the Fells Point branch of the Enoch Pratt Library. All Pratt children’s librarians, at that time, were expected to tell children’s stories. Schlitz took to it quickly and amassed an impressive repertoire.
When a friend asked her to write an adaptation of Beauty and the Beast for the Children’s Theater Association, Schlitz leapt at the opportunity. She finished the script in a whirlwind 10 days and even appeared in the production. “I thought everyone would finally notice what a great actress I was,” she recalls. “Instead, they told me, ‘You know, that was a really good script.’ It made me realize I wasn’t really an actress; I was a writer.”
Her first foray into fiction was a romance novel. Written under the pseudonym Chloe Cheshire, A Gypsy at Almack’s was published by St. Martin’s Press in 1993. Publishers Weekly called the book a “sprightly, amusing tale of manners and romance” and praised its “well-rounded characters, witty dialogue, and vivid descriptions.” It sold relatively well.
Schlitz then spent four years writing a historical novel set in Venice. St. Martin’s kept it under consideration for 13 months but, ultimately, decided against publishing it. Schlitz was heartbroken.
By that time, she was working at Park and had begun writing monologues for students studying The Middle Ages. Each piece was meticulously researched and written from the perspective of a child living in that era; they included a plowboy, shepherdess, a falconer’s son, a glassblower’s daughter, and a beggar. “I wrote them for the kids to inhabit the characters and better understand the history,” says Schlitz.
“It’s a different way of approaching literacy, becoming those people,” says Sharen Pula. “To do that, the students need to really understand the words Laura has put together. The language is sophisticated and sometimes archaic, but her monologues are so well constructed. The writing is so pure.”
Friends, including Pula, encouraged her to submit them for publication, but Schlitz, still smarting from the rejection of her Venetian novel, was skeptical. “Nobody goes into a store and requests a book of monologues about the Middle Ages written from the point of view of children,” she points out. “They’d rather have a dinosaur book.”
“She tackles big topics with books that have literary merit, but always makes it fun.”
Despite such doubts, she put together a manuscript and tried again. Candlewick Press, a prominent publisher of books for kids, snapped it up, and Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! established Schlitz as a new, and welcome, presence in children’s literature. The New York Times dubbed her “a master” of the genre, and Kirkus gushed: “Schlitz takes the breath away with unabashed excellence in every direction.”
She has since written four other books, all published by Candlewick. They are a diverse bunch, from Dickensian thriller (Splendors and Glooms) and historical fiction (The Hired Girl) to biography (The Hero Schliemann) and a picture book for young children (Princess Cora and the Crocodile). “Laura’s oeuvre continually expands because her interests are so wide,” says Elizabeth Bicknell, Candlewick’s executive editorial director. “She tackles big topics with books that have literary merit, but always makes it fun and enjoyable. She understands what children will like.”
That understanding is rooted in Schlitz’s work at Park, where she can see, firsthand, what children enjoy. In fact, she sometimes reads works in progress to her young audience to gauge what sort of reactions they get. “It gives me an edge,” says Schlitz, who admits to extensive revisions. “I can see how the plot and certain elements work, because it’s right there on the children’s faces. If they’re squirming, I know I’ve written too much on that page. They’re basically telling me, ‘Come on, let’s move things along.’”
Despite all her success, Schlitz has no plans to retire. She enjoys the routine of going to work and returning home to write. The writing, these days, takes more disciplined effort, and she has less time for old hobbies such as playing folk harp, making marionettes, and quilting. She has a new book, written in verse, in the pipeline at Candlewick, which will likely come out next year.
Schlitz pulls a blue leather notebook from a handbag and turns to a random page covered with her nearly indecipherable script. It’s a brand-new story that could become her next book project. “This is just the beginning of my first draft,” she says, before glancing at the clock.
It’s nearly 11:15 in the morning, time for recess duty. The story will have to wait, and Schlitz returns the notebook to her bag. She slips into a long overcoat and heads to the playground to join the children.