Laura Amy Schlitz is a children’s author whose work deserves attention.
I first became aware of Schlitz when she won the Newbery Award in 2008 for Good Masters! SweetLadies! Voices from a Medieval Village. The backstory is appealing: a middle school librarian, she wanted a play for her students to perform about the Middle Ages and, not finding what she had in mind, wrote it herself. It is a series of monologues “so that, for three minutes at least, every child could be a star” (from jacket notes). My favorite has two characters, Jacob Ben Salomon (the Moneylender’s son) and Petronella (the Merchant’s daughter), who manage to forget the animosity between Christian and Jew for a half hour as they skip rocks across the local stream.
Wonderfully written as it is, this book fits into the category of Newbery books, chosen by adults, which have limited shelf appeal to children. No such problem for Schlitz’s The Night Fairy, which was published in 2010 and has been flying off the shelf (pun intended). Anything about fairies has been popular lately, but heroine Flory stands out from the crowd. She loses the ability to fly after an unfortunate collision with a bat. Plucky and only as tall as a couple of acorns, she adapts to life in the garden where she is stranded, befriending a squirrel and eventually casting off her innate selfishness to rescue a hummingbird. (For those of you readers who live in Orange County, CA, an adaptation of The Night Fairy is running until June 9 at South Coast Repertory as part of their Theater for Young People series!)
So what about Schlitz’s latest publication, Splendors and Glooms, which was a Newbery Honor Book in 2012? How popular will it be? The jury is still out, but I think it will find readers who like a bit of dark fantasy. The central characters are three children in Victorian London. Lizzie Rose and Parsefall are orphans who work for a shady puppeteer named Grisini. Clara is a lonely young lady who persuades her wealthy father to hire Grisini’s troupe for her fateful twelfth birthday party. Not only does Grisini kidnap her, he turns her into a puppet. All three children become embroiled in the conflict between the evil puppeteer and a witch named Cassandra who needs the children to break free from the spell of a powerful fire opal that has granted her many wishes, but is tormenting her last days. Loyalty and strength of character allow the young people to triumph in the end.