Laura Amy Schlitz: School Librarian on Winning the Newbery

Laura Amy Schlitz won the 2008 Newbery Medal for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!: Voices from a Medieval Village, illustrated by Robert Byrd, making this the second year in a row that a librarian has taken the top prize (Shelf Awareness, January 15). Schlitz started these 21 dramatizations as pieces for her classes to perform at the Park School near Baltimore, Md., where she serves as librarian, and where each year students study the Middle Ages. Even though The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy, also illustrated by Robert Byrd, and A Drowned Maiden's Hair [both published in 2006 by Candlewick] came out earlier, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! was the first book Schlitz wrote that was accepted for publication at Candlewick. Here Shelf Awareness's Jennifer M. Brown speaks with Schiltz, who reflects on winning the Newbery and the contributions her students have made to her writing process.
Congratulations! You and Susan Patron are setting some pretty high standards for librarianship.

It's all of us librarians sticking together.

Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! may have been new to readers outside the Park School, but in fact, your students have been performing many of these plays for some time, haven't they?

I wrote them in the summer of 1996, so that's a generation, really. The children who first performed them are seniors in college now.

Have you heard from any of your graduates since last week's announcement?

I have heard from some of them, and particularly, the writers. One young writer, who used to come and stand by my desk and tell me these wonderful, involved horror stories about creatures who would sit on people's graves and absorb their entrails through their anuses, has just signed with an agent.

Do you often try out your work on your students?

The Hero Schliemann [the biography of a 19th-century storyteller and archaeologist who searched for the lost cities of Homer's epic poems] I read to fourth-graders. The children listened really attentively to the story of Schliemann. One girl asked, "Who is this Homer?," which I thought was a fair question from a fourth-grader, so we added a note about Homer.
The Drowned Maiden I read to fourth-graders. I had only one comment on that one: a boy said, after chapter one, "Boy, was that long." I didn't have the courage to take it back after that. That response made me think maybe this was more of a story for sixth-graders and seventh-graders. Since then, younger kids have come back to it. Maybe I didn't read it courageously enough. When you read someone else's work, you commit to it. And when I read my own work, perhaps a certain timorousness crept in, and the audience smelled fear.

When the students at the Park School learned that you had won the Newbery, did they feel they were a part of your victory?

I'm trying to find a stronger word than absolutely. Indubitably?
It's been touching and enthralling to see how much on my side these children are, how generous they are with their congratulations. These are children who've heard me yell at them in the hall, who've seen me with a cold on bad days. They have great generosity.
Was it your idea, after seeing Robert Byrd's illustrations for The Hero Schliemann, to suggest him for Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!?

The suggestion originally came from Chris Paul who had worked on the design for this book. She had come up with a design in the early stages when we had envisioned Trina Shart Hyman doing the book. [Hyman passed away in 2004.]
We were so enchanted by what Byrd did for The Hero Schliemann. I love the humor and vitality in the illustrations, yet they also have such realistic attention to detail. Schliemann is such a comic opera character on the one hand, yet there was also sadness in his life. We wanted someone who could capture the drama and humor of the story but also someone who could attend to the details of the [archaeological] sites and layouts. I felt Byrd captured his inner self and also his enormous theatricality.

Did you work with Robert Byrd on factual references on Good Masters?

It was a series of interesting coincidences. We have a program at the Park School called the Gordon Berman Memorial Lower School Resident Author program. It's a single-day program. Every year the children at Park get to talk to a real author or real illustrator. I hear children say, "He uses the same kind of water paints I use."
Robert Byrd was the visiting author, and then the decision was made to have him also illustrate Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! I got to see some of his sketches. Candlewick is unusual in that they're interested in getting the author's response. I loved Robert Byrd's drawings. There were one or two instances when the characters were wearing more 15th-century than 13th-century clothing. [I pointed that out and] he immediately went back and started deleting fancy pleats. So many of the inspired touches of this book--people holding cats, the addition of animals, birds following the grain in the fields--they're so informative.
You've mentioned that at one time you nearly gave up writing. What would you say to those writers out there who are at the point of giving up?

I actually have never succeeded in giving up writing. I think what I may have said was I'd given up on getting published. Can you take one more rejection? Can you find the money for the postage? When you've written an 800-page novel, the postage is not insignificant. Everyone has a book they haven't published, that's mine.
I'm proof that the miraculous is alive and well in the world. I am so grateful to Candlewick for fishing me out of the slush pile and treating my work with such respect and treating me with such kindness.

I do remember talking to a class of children about how I'd tried to get published. One clear-eyed student looked at me and said, "Maybe you gave up too quickly."


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