Newbery winner Laura Amy Schlitz publishes her magnum opus

"Splendors and Glooms" could win the Baltimore author a second round of awards

  • Laura Amy Schlitz, who still works as a librarian at Park School, is awaiting publication of her latest book, 'Splendors and Glooms."
Laura Amy Schlitz, who still works as a librarian at Park School,… (Karl Merton Ferron, Baltimore…)
August 25, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

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.

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