Lady Of The Stories

From Words, Baltimore Librarian Laura Amy Schlitz Conjures Magical Worlds

September 24, 2006|By Mary Carole McCauley | Mary Carole McCauley,[sun reporter]

In the chronicles of Baltimore can be found a wise woman who has studied all the best masters in history and archaeology and the arts, and whose cleverness at telling stories is unparalleled throughout the realm.

Her name is Laura Amy Schlitz and not, as some have suspected, Scheherazade. For Scheherazade merely told the king of Persia about Aladdin, Ali Baba and Sinbad the Sailor over 1,001 Arabian nights. But Laura Amy Schlitz has told stories to pupils at the Park School in Brooklandville for more than 2,002 Maryland days. She has told them about a sweet-smelling elderly woman named Hyacinth who is poisonous to children; about Sophia the Greek peasant girl and about Hugo the lord's son.

One day, Laura Amy Schlitz's colleagues said to her: 'The tales you weave are wondrous strange. You should write them down."

And so she did.

THE STORY OF

LAURA THE LIBRARIAN,

MAUD THE ORPHAN AND HEINRICH THE LIAR

Laura Amy Schlitz has been a storyteller all her life, and she looks the part. She has long, curly gray hair that falls almost to her waist, like the heroine in a Dickens novel. Occasionally, she pulls a thick lock over her shoulder, and runs her fingers down it contemplatively, as if she were carding wool.

Like Maud, one of the young heroines in her newest novel, Schlitz has a discerning eye for fine fabrics and clothes, and adornments that sparkle and glow.

"Laura is the last of the Victorian girl girls," says Suzanne Pratt, artistic director of Theatre Hopkins and Schlitz's longtime friend. "She has these china-dish blue eyes, and an incredible complexion. Her taste is exquisite, and it runs to the Byzantine."

For decades, Schlitz has worn at least three hats. This summer, she added a fourth.

In addition to being the chief storyteller at Park School, she also is the librarian. She is a playwright whose work has been commissioned and staged by a prestigious children's theater in Louisville. And, in July she became a published children's novelist.

Candlewick Press, a classy, Boston-based publisher recently issued two of her books:The Hero Schliemann, a biography of the man who discovered the ancient city of Troy, and A Drowned Maiden's Hair, a novel set in the late Victorian era.

Maiden's Hair begins: "On the morning of the best day of her life, Maud Flynn was locked in the outhouse, singing The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

That sentence contains several hallmarks of Schlitz' writing: her off-kilter sense of humor, her refusal to sugarcoat harsh realities, and, not least, an undeniable flourish. Reading that sentence is like driving over a mountain road full of switchbacks and hairpin turns. Only a writer confident of her craft could pull it off without crashing through the guard rail. (Schlitz will read excerpts from the novel next weekend at the Baltimore Book Festival.)

In classic fairy tale fashion, Schlitz was discovered by Danielle Sadler, an editorial assistant at Candlewick who was going through the slush pile of unsolicited manuscripts. Sadler was struck by the quality of the writing in a series of monologues set in the Middle Ages, and brought them to the attention of editor Mary Lee Donovan.

"It was the most exciting submission that I've had in my 22-year career," Donovan says.

"When you read piles of unsolicited manuscripts, you occasionally find someone who is worth encouraging, but you almost never find something that is worth publishing. Not only was this worth publishing, it was almost perfect. It needed almost no editing. It was obvious that Laura just has astonishing talent.

Candlewick decided to release the monologues in 2007 under the title, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village.

And, Donovan asked, was Schlitz by any chance working on any other children's books?

Three additional submissions -- and acceptances -- followed. Schlitz' fourth book for children, an adaptation of a fairy tale called The Bearskinner by the Brothers Grimm, also will be published next year by Candlewick.

"Her writing is subtle and it is meticulously crafted," Donovan says. "Her selection of words and turns of phrase always are accurate for the character. Every word gives you more information."

Schlitz never talks down to children. Maiden's Hair contains words that would stump many grown-ups, such as chromos, mucilaginous and the French term, noblesse oblige.

In The Hero Schliemann, a biography of the brilliant, eccentric Heinrich Schliemann, the main character is no role model. Schlitz makes it clear that Schliemann was a compulsive liar, broke the law, stole national treasures and did incalculable damage to the ancient city that he dedicated his life to unearthing.

How often is such a flawed human being the star of a children's book?

"I loved working with Laura," says Moses Goldberg, former artistic director of Stage One in Louisville, which has an annual audience of more than 100,000.

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