Newbery Medal winner

The Baltimore Sun

When Park School librarian Laura Amy Schlitz arrived at work yesterday, she was presented with a tiara borrowed from the theater's props department - a fitting tribute for the newly anointed queen of children's literature.

Schlitz, 52, of Baltimore, learned that she had won the 2008 Newbery Medal, given annually for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for the under-18 set.

During an all-school assembly called yesterday afternoon in Schlitz's honor, the entire student body of nearly 900 students stood and cheered for at least 30 seconds. The applause went on and on.

"When I was a child, I wanted to be important," said Schlitz, who has worked at the Park School since 1991 as a librarian and as the chief storyteller. "I never thought I'd win this award. I still can't believe I'd won it. But all the love and loyalty in this room - this is better."

In past weeks, rumors had been rife on several Web sites that Schlitz's Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village would be a contender for either the top prize, or one of the three 2008 Honor Books. Featuring characters such as a youthful beggar, a glassblower's apprentice and a shepherdess, the collection of 22 monologues and dialogues grew out of a Park School lesson plan.

"I was keeping my fingers crossed and hoping against hope that the monologues would be selected as an Honor Book," Schlitz said.

"I knew if they were going to call me, they'd call me very early in the morning. I woke up at 5 a.m. with a stomachache that wouldn't let me go back to sleep.

"When it got to be 6:30 a.m., I figured that it was too late, that I hadn't won. And then the phone rang.

"And I thought, 'Please, not a wrong number.'"

It wasn't. After yesterday's announcement by the Newbery Committee, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! had rocketed to No. 17 on Amazon.com's list of top sellers.

In addition, Schlitz fielded interview requests yesterday from newspapers that included the Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post, and was scheduled to appear this morning on NBC's The Today Show.

Other honors, though more local in scope, were no less cherished. During Schlitz's noon-hour session with the second grade, the pupils in Mr. Rollins' class presented her with a poster they'd decorated and autographed in honor of the Newbery award.

"Have a good life!" wrote a boy named Donald.

Several students clearly wanted to wish Schlitz "congratulations," though a few had trouble spelling such a long word. An occasional stray consonant, such as a "P," leapt the fence, wandered in where it didn't belong and had to be crossed out with a firm hand.

"For someone who doesn't have children, she's incredibly insightful about what's going on in a child's head," said her friend Judith Schwait, who works in publications at Park School and is Daniel's mother.

Betsy Leighton, the lower school principal, said the same qualities that Schlitz brings to her writing make her a passionate and insightful advocate for children.

"When a child is having trouble, sometimes we seek a perspective from an outside staff member," Leighton said. "Laura always has something useful and valuable to say. More often than not, she's right on the mark."

Schwait's 18-year-old son Daniel, a 12th-grader, has known Schlitz since he was 3 years old, and the two have become close friends.

"She's like no one else I've ever known," said Daniel Schwait, who discovered before he was in second grade that he and Schlitz share a passion for opera.

"We would swing on the swings and sing arias from The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute," he says. "Laura would sing in Italian, and I would sing sounds that sounded like Italian to me."

Schlitz's novel is characterized by that quirky sensibility. Not only does it have an unconventional structure, it has footnotes - unheard of for a children's book, though they are some of the most delightful aspects of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! The selection surprised some who expected the Newbery Committee to gravitate, as usual, toward more traditionally styled fiction.

But Newbery Committee chairwoman Nina Lindsay called granting the medal to the monologues easily a "rock-solid decision."

"What makes it fabulous is the language she uses to bring these characters alive," Lindsay said, praising Schlitz's use of varied poetic forms and literary styles, leavened with humor.

She added that the awards committee was impressed that Schlitz had transformed the book form from a sedentary pursuit by encouraging young people to read aloud, perform and play-act with others.

"It comes to life as you start reading it," Lindsay said.

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But the end, it's like a pageant of characters."

The daughter of a retired federal court clerk and a homemaker with many part-time jobs, including stable hand, Schlitz has been a local girl all her life. She is single and lives in the Loch Hill section of Baltimore County. Schlitz is no taller than many of her students, but her most striking feature is her nearly waist-length silver hair, which curls around her shoulders like mist.

Yesterday's announcement culminates a momentous period in Schlitz's life that began in 2006 when four children's novels were accepted for publication by the Boston-based Candlewick Press. Her previous three books are A Drowned Maiden's Hair, The Hero Schliemann and The Bearskinner.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was the third to be published, though it was the first to be accepted.

An editorial assistant plucked the monologues from the "slush pile" of unsolicited manuscripts and brought it to the attention of Candlewick editor Mary Lee Donovan. She called it "the most exciting submission that I've had in my 23-year career."

Almost immediately Donovan knew she had something special. The nimble writing. The vivid characters. The meticulous research. And, above all else, a story that children would find irresistible.

"It's one of those fairy tale stories that people love to know happen every now and then," she said.

"My heart definitely beat faster. I was overwhelmed by the clear talent. It was almost a perfect manuscript."

For a writer, one of the nicest aspects of winning a Newbery is that your book will always be available in bookstores alongside other Newbery winners, including such acknowledged classics as Dr. Dolittle and A Wrinkle in Time.

But as exciting as that is for Schlitz, she is trying hard to keep her priorities straight. And the fifth-grade class was due in the library at any moment.

"My head is full of the champagne bubbles of happiness," Schlitz said, "but I have a story to tell in five minutes."

mary.mccauley@baltsun.com jill.rosen@baltsun.com

Laura Amy Schlitz

Age: 52

Born: Baltimore

Personal: Single; no children

Lives: Loch Hill section of Baltimore County

Current achievement: Winner of the 2008 John Newbery award Occupation: Novelist and playwright; Park School librarian and storyteller

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

Publications: Four children's books published by Candlewick Press in 2006 and 2007. A romance novel for adults, A Gypsy at Almack's, was published in 1994 under the pseudonym Chloe Cheshire.

Plays: Eight or nine, by Schlitz's count. Her scripts have been produced at Stage One in Louisville, Ky., and by at least two Baltimore troupes: Pumpkin Theatre and the Children's Theatre Association.

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