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Newbery winner Laura Amy Schlitz publishes her magnum opus

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

August 25, 2012|By Mary Carole McCauley, The Baltimore Sun

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.


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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