Park School librarian Laura Amy Schlitz doesn’t only read books to students. She also tells them stories that she makes up. Some of them she writes down. Not only have several of these been published; two have been honored by the Newbery Committee, which bestows the most esteemed recognition to U.S. children’s authors. In 2008, the 57-year-old lifelong Baltimore resident was awarded the Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, a series of monologues about life in a 13th century English village as told by the village’s children. Just last week, Schlitz learned that her latest book, the gothic novel Splendors and Glooms, was one of three books to earn the title of 2013 Newbery Honor by the American Library Association.
Baltimorefishbowl caught up to Ms. Schlitz at Park School (no, she hasn’t quit her day job). She shared with us where she finds inspiration for her books, what sort of struggles she overcame to bring her latest book to fruition, why she has faith in the future of children’s love of literature, and more.
BaltimoreFishbowl: Splendors and Glooms has been described as a “Victorian gothic” novel. Could you define this genre and explain why you chose to write a Victorian gothic book?
Schlitz: I have a great love for the Victorian writers; Dickens and Bronte are my favorites. Thomas Hardy, Wilkie Collins—I adore Wilkie Collins. I liked the idea of trying to write a Dickensian novel. Certainly this is a gothic novel, with its secrets, mansions, and brooding.
BaltimoreFishbowl: Where did the idea for Splendors and Glooms originate?
Schlitz: I was lying in bed trying to make up stories, and nothing was happening. I stepped back and thought: What do I love, what are my obsessions? I’m fascinated by marionettes, and I love Dickens. I suddenly had this image of a little girl marionette in a white dress, and I had the very beginning plot of the book: a little girl kidnapped by an evil puppeteer.
BaltimoreFishbowl: I’ve heard some authors say that they’re never sure where the plot and characters of the books they’re writing will lead them. How does the process of writing a children’s book unfold for you?
Schlitz: I don’t know if I could write a book if I already knew everything. I listen with powerful envy when writers say they have everything in an outline before they write. I think that it’s the mystery that attracts me.
BaltimoreFishbowl: I understand it took you more than six years to write Splendors and Glooms. What was that like?
I have hated and loved this book more than all the others. This one really was a terrible battle all the way through. I would take it in one direction, then have to tear out 11 chapters. It took me such a long time to get the plot working properly. What we like best to do are the things that make us feel competent. I think having the silver sticker is just unbelievably sweet because I worked so hard.
BaltimoreFishbowl: This isn’t the first time one of your books was recognized by the Newbery Committee. In 2008 you were awarded the Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. Tell me, what was the impact of winning such a prestigious honor on your writing endeavors going forward?
Schlitz: It’s an amazing thing to receive a Newbery Medal. It was absolutely astonishing. It made me feel like anything is possible. But the relationship I had with my writing did not change because writing is always difficult, almost a bare-hands grappling. You sit down and you try to do this thing. Because it is hard, you tend to push to peripheral vision other things.
BaltimoreFishbowl: How long have you been writing?
Schlitz: I have been writing a very long time. I remember asking my mother to write down a poem of mine before I could write. But I wasn’t always published. I had sent something to 11 different publishers. I was electrified to get a response from Candlewick Press wanting to know if I wanted them to publish my book, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. I went flying and floating down the hall, astonished by Park students who’d been told not to run in the halls.
BaltimoreFishbowl: Are you working on a book now?
Schlitz: Yes. But I won’t share with this one.
BaltimoreFishbowl: How does being a school librarian impact your writing?
Schlitz: I read to children all the time. I tell stories to them. I watch their faces. I can tell when they’re bored. Over the years you have a feeling for some of the elements that children love and are drawn to. Also, I am with children so the heroes and heroines of my books are children.
BaltimoreFishbowl: How can we ensure that we continue to raise avid readers?
Schlitz: It’s not like you’re trying to get a child to love something that’s not loveable. But when you and I look at a page of text, a movie begins to unwind. When you’re learning to read, you’re looking at an “h” and a “t”. I think it’s very important for children to be read to, to have that be a special moment. It’s wonderful to be able to snuggle up to someone you love while they read you a story.