When she was a kid in North Baltimore County, Laura Amy Schlitz trained herself to sleep in a position that was similar to that of Mary Martin on the cover of the Peter Pan phonorecord: “one knee up and the other knee stretched behind me and my back arched.” She thought that if Peter popped into her window, he would think, “Oh, she’s asleep, but she definitely wants to go to Neverland.”
Considering this history, it makes sense that the author has written The Night Fairy, a middle-grade novel about a brave fairy named Flory—and the challenges she faces when a bat accidentally crunches off her wings.
In a phone interview with BookPage, Schlitz explained that fairy stories, which have a fairy as the main character, are different from fairy tales. And fairies are not frou-frou girly-girls (contrary to what you might think from coloring book pictures of fairy princesses).
“What’s enchanting about the fairy world is that it’s completely free,” Schlitz explained. “You never see a fairy with shoes on. Princesses wear shoes. Princesses wear corsets, but fairies wear loose clothes and they’re barefoot. They move and they dart and they spring. When I dreamed of fairies as a child that was part of what was so fascinating to me. Part of it was aesthetic; there was this beauty. And the other part was adventure. And I think it’s that aesthetic plus adventure quality about fairies that is so enticing.”
In The Night Fairy, those qualities are captured in Schlitz’s writing—which is wonderfully descriptive of Flory’s changing emotions and the creatures that surround her, including a praying mantis, a squirrel and a red-throated hummingbird in need of rescue. Thanks to illustrations by Angela Barrett, the book is a true work of art. Young readers will delight in discovering Flory’s miniature world, captured in vibrant greens and blues. As Schlitz says, the pictures bring a feeling to the story that is “luminous and exquisite.”
The garden where Flory lives is based on Schlitz’s own garden, and because Flory is a nocturnal fairy, Schlitz observed at night for research. “I turned off all the lights in the house and watched the garden get dark. I thought about what I could see, where the sky is lightest at dusk and what’s the last thing you can see as it gets darker and darker.” She noticed that white flowers would remain visible during the night, but after a certain point pink flowers would be gone. “It was interesting because I think in our culture we very seldom let our eyes completely dilate,” she said.
Besides writing and gardening, Schlitz has another passion: her work as Lower School librarian at The Park School of Baltimore, a position that gives her “an edge” when it comes to writing for children. Talking about her students, she said, “They both inspire and encourage me and I can try things out on them.”
This method certainly helped when Schlitz wrote Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village, the winner of the 2008 Newbery Medal. The book was originally conceived as monologues for students at The Park School, and now Schlitz said her kids “own the characters; they live in their skins.”
The Night Fairy was also inspired by students—specifically, little girls. “They wanted a book about a fairy,” she said. “I went to a bookstore because I thought we should have these books; we should have more books about fairies. But when I started looking for books about fairies, there were a number of them that had quite nice illustrations, but I didn’t find many where much was happening.”
While she was working on her manuscript, Schlitz read The Night Fairy out loud to a group of second graders, watching their faces to see interest, or squirming, and identifying “good parts” based on when she got excited about sharing certain scenes.
“My students are very avid listeners as well as avid readers. They love having a story told to them. As they say, ‘I like it when I make the pictures up in my head. I like to see the pictures in my head.’ And that’s exciting to me because they may think that what they like is the way I’m telling the story, but what they really like is the way they’re participating: the things that are happening inside their brains.”
Since winning the Newbery, Schlitz has cut back to working three days a week at The Park School, and now she teaches third through fifth graders: the perfect audience for The Night Fairy, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies!, and The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug Up Troy, her novel from 2006. But the author is also adept at writing for different age groups, as demonstrated by her picture book The Bearskinner or her young adult novel A Drowned Maiden’s Hair: A Melodrama.
Next up will be a Victorian gothic called Splendors and Glooms, which Schlitz calls “a bizarre little book” that will appeal to readers who loved A Drowned Maiden’s Tale, since both stories have “suspense and surprises and a little whistle of brimstone.” The title comes from Shelley’s elegy “Adonaïs” and stars a boy and a girl who personify “dingy splendor” and “decorative gloom.” Schlitz hasn’t yet signed a contract for the book, although she wants to finish it soon. “I’m hoping that I can finish the second draft and that someone will want to publish it,” she said.
If the rich characterization and lovely descriptions present in The Night Fairy are any indication, that shouldn’t be a problem.