Newbery winner Laura Amy Schlitz publishes her magnum opus

AuthorsLiteratureArts and CultureHuman InterestBiography (genre)Charles DickensDavid Copperfield

The witch had been weeping in the boxwoods for more than half a century before Laura Amy Schlitz picked up her pen and set her free.

The 57-year-old Schlitz is the librarian at Park School and a Newbery Medal-winning author whose newest novel, "Splendors and Glooms," will be published Tuesday by Candlewick Press. But in 1959, she was a small child in the throes of a nightmare.

"This book is a deeply personal story, and it goes back a very long way," she says.

"When I was 4 years old, I woke up in the middle of the night and told my parents there was a witch crying outside in the boxwood bushes. I didn't know who she was or why she was crying, but I was terribly upset. My parents told me that there wasn't any witch and tucked me back into bed."

Even at that age, she knew better than to believe everything grown-ups said.

"I think that witch has been crying inside my head for the past 50 years," she says, "until I was finally able to write about her."

"Splendors and Glooms" is a dark fairy tale set in Victorian England that Schlitz describes as an homage to her favorite author, Charles Dickens. It tells a story of a sad little rich girl with the evocative name of Clara Wintermute who is befriended by two orphans: scrappy, nine-fingered Parsefall and the lion-hearted Lizzie Rose.

As the children battle an evil puppet master named Grisini, they are alternately hindered and aided by Cassandra, a dying witch who harbors secrets of her own.

"Splendors and Glooms" is Schlitz's sixth novel for children and may be her magnum opus. At nearly 400 pages, it is her longest and most structurally complex book. "Splendors" takes its title from a poem by Percy Bysshe Shelley and took Schlitz nearly seven years to write.

"This is by far Laura's most impressive work to date," says Elizabeth Bird, the youth materials specialist for the New York Public Library.

" 'Splendors and Glooms' synthesizes a lot of what she's done over the years in one tome — history, dark fairy tales, melodrama and complex villains. Laura is a true original. Nobody else writes like her or even comes close. For readers who find her, she's a revelation."

Bird writes a well-regarded blog for the School Library Journal, and she has speculated that the new novel could win Schlitz a second round of Newbery honors. Though the early favorite for the 2013 prize is "Wonder" by R.J. Palacio, "Splendors" has popped up on several lists predicting Newbery winners.

"Librarians have been talking up Laura's book unprompted," she says. "I think there's a good chance 'Splendors' could at least be an honor book."

Until 2006, no one in the literary world knew Schlitz existed. That's when an editorial assistant at Candlewick Press plucked from a pile her manuscript of first-person narratives by children describing life in an English town circa 1255.

In the next two years, Candlewick published four of Schlitz's children's books: a novel, a biography and an adaptation of a fairy tale by the Brothers Grimm. The fourth was the monologue collection, "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village", which won the 2008 Newbery Medal.

The prize and resulting book contracts allowed Schlitz to reduce her hours at Park and devote more time to writing.

"The child characters in Laura's books are wonderfully smart, but they're often isolated or even orphans," says Kevin Coll, who read early drafts of "Splendors and Glooms," and whom the author credits for helping her overcome writer's block.

"They're also not conventionally nice. They're cantankerous, funny and selfish in a deeply human way," says Coll, an English teacher and principal of Park's upper school. "In the hands of a lesser novelist, 'Splendors and Glooms' could be a morality tale. But because it's Laura's book, the characters move toward integration and connection with other human beings."

Now, the author writes her books while gazing into the yard behind her cozy brick duplex in Stoneleigh. There's a reason her work is often set in the Victorian or Edwardian eras. Schlitz often seems like a throwback to those periods.

It's not just that she eschews such modern technology as email or voice mail or writes first drafts in longhand. In Schlitz's living room, a rose-colored settee stands next to a wooden harp that the author occasionally plays, while a small angel statue sits on an end table.

It's not just her appearance, though at times she appears to have stepped out of one of her books. At just 4 foot 11, Schlitz is very nearly fairy-sized, and has very big, very blue, very kind eyes. She wears her gray hair flowing most of the way down her back or in a long braid, and dresses in jewel-toned, loose fabrics.

It's that the preoccupations of the Victorian era — the rise of the middle class, the cult of childhood, the emphases on Romanticism, spirituality and all forms of theater — also consume Schlitz. (She spent three years in the 1980s as an actress touring with the Baltimore-based Children's Theater Association.)

"I tell 'Hansel and Gretel' stories about heroic children who are lost in a world that seems friendly at first, and then isn't," she says. "There's also the idea of a Faustian bargain, where you can have everything you want, but at a terrible price."

Young Laura was the kind of imaginative, impressionable child who hid dried pieces of bread around the dining room table so that she and her brother would never be without the crusts that were the sole food source for Gretel and her brother.

When she was 9 or 10, her father made her a present of an abridged volume of Dickens. The girl soon drew real-life parallels between the tragedies experienced by Little Nell and David Copperfield and her own ancestors.

"One day, I was at my grandmother's house and I found diaries that she kept as a young girl," she recalls.

"I opened one to a page that had flowers glued inside. In her childish handwriting, my grandmother wrote, 'Pap died today. I am very sad.' The fact that this was true and that I could see the withered flowers made a huge impression on me.

"It was probably in that same volume that my grandmother wrote about the sinking of the Titanic."

Perhaps it's not surprising that Schlitz' books play with the ambiguous middle ground between life and death.

Seances provide a key plot twist in her 2006 melodrama,"A Drowned Maiden's Hair," while Schlitz' biography, "The Hero Schliemann" tells of the discovery of the lost, legendary civilization of Troy. "Splendors and Glooms" describes Victorian mourning customs and the marionette shows that were popular in the late 19th century.

"Everyone in my story is stuck in one way or another," Schlitz says. "Marionettes always seemed to me to have a kind of macabre half-life. They're animated, so they're not fully alive or fully dead."

"Splendors" is Schlitz's third attempt at writing about puppets, though it's the only one to be published. While researching her first book about 20 years ago, she set herself the task of making several marionettes. What she learned proved invaluable when she wrote "Splendors and Glooms."

"I usually began by making the puppets' arms and legs," Schlitz says. "When it came time to stop working for the day, I'd put them down on the table. The way they flopped, with one arm across a belly or with their legs splayed out was so suggestive of a particular character that I knew what heads to make. A friend who saw my first marionette said it was like being in a room with a snake. It was alive, but quite alien."

At times, while Schlitz was writing "Splendors and Glooms" her agonies rivaled those of the witch Cassandra's.

She'd kill off a character, write nine additional chapters, realize that she needed to resurrect him or her, and throw out several months' work.

"I hated and loved this book more than any of the others," she says. "It ate me alive. I have never been in more trouble as a writer. It was really painful to be as stuck as I was and to feel as stupid as I felt.

"But, I also really cared about these children. I couldn't abandon them. I had to keep going until I could get it right."

So week by week, character by character and chapter by chapter, Laura Amy Schlitz followed the distant and nearly inaudible groans of a sorrowful witch.

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com

Her latest

"Splendors and Glooms" is being published Tuesday by Candlewick Press. 400 pages. Recommended for children ages 9 and older. $17.99

Laura Amy Schlitz

Age: 57

Occupation: Children's book author, part-time librarian at Park School

Residence: Stoneleigh

Birthplace: Baltimore

Education: Goucher College, bachelor of arts degree in aesthetics, 1977

Honors: 2008 Newbery Medal for "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!"

Children's books: "The Hero Schliemann" (2006); "A Drowned Maiden's Hair" (2006); "The Bearskinner" (2007); "Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!" (2007); "The Night Fairy" (2010); "Splendors and Glooms" (2012)

Other works: Kentucky's Stage One has staged professional productions of a few of Schlitz's children's plays. She also wrote a romance novel for adults, "A Gypsy at Almack's", that was published in 1994 under the pseudonym Chloe Cheshire.

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