Unfortunately, your access has now expired. But there’s good news—by subscribing today, you will receive 22 issues of Booklist magazine, 4 issues of Book Links, and single-login access to Booklist Online and over 200,000 reviews.
Your access to Booklist Online has expired. If you still subscribe to the print magazine, please proceed to your profile page and check your subscriber number against a current magazine mailing label. (If your print subscription has lapsed, you will need to renew.)
Register or subscribe today
Find more Books and Authors
Newbery medalist Schlitz takes readers back to ancient Greece in her latest historical novel and discusses its many structural elements and how she lets fate guide her writing.
“Over the years, I’ve learned to trust images that stick in your mind. If you have an image of something, even if you have no idea how it’s going to fit in the story, you see if you can work toward it.”
The Greek gods have long been a staple in middle-grade literature, their recent popularity due in no small part to Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series and its spin-offs. In Amber and Clay, her newest Herculean endeavor, Newbery medalist Laura Amy Schlitz (Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! 2007) transports readers to ancient Greece, crafting an epic tale that encompasses not just the gods but historical figures, Greek art and literary tradition, and illustrations of artifacts, layered into the text like museum exhibits.
At the heart of the book is the story of two children: quiet Rhaskos, born into slavery, but with the soul of an artist, and Melisto, the wild daughter of a wealthy Athenian, favored by the goddess Artemis. Though they aren’t destined to meet in life, their destinies are still inextricably bound.
We caught up with Schlitz to discuss this project, the enormous amount of research that went into it, and the various literary tactics she employed to make her characters come alive.
Reagan: In your back matter, you talk about how you initially never intended to do all these things that seem so foundational to the book (like writing in verse!). I’m curious to hear about where you started and where you ended up, especially in regard to some of the structural forms you used. Schlitz: I was sort of alarmed when I saw that verse was taking over the book, because I didn’t intend to do that. The first piece that was in verse was Hermes, and he seemed to want to directly address the audience. The prose just got looser and looser. And after a while I realized I was writing in blank verse. And then I thought, maybe some of Rhaskos’ pieces would work better if they were first person. I let them work into a blank-verse structure, but then Melisto—absolutely not. She wouldn’t go into verse.
I thought I’d try the strophe-antistrophe approach because I had reread the Greek plays and learned of that technique. And I thought, “Let’s see if I can do that.” It’s very labor intensive because, first, you write what each character really wants to say. Then you start breaking it down. You have one line underneath the other line; you keep counting the syllables and stamping out the rhythm with your hand. At first, it’s a mess. But there was something about the craftsmanship that appealed to me.And I was thinking about Greek craftsmanship. If you look at the close-ups of the Parthenon frieze, for example, they’ve got the veins on the horses’ stomachs; they’ve got the rider tilting his wrist in a certain way so you can see the shadow between the boats. It’s 40 feet in the air, so nobody could really see it, but they wanted to get it right. They paid that much attention to how it fit together.
So I wanted to try to emulate that craft. When I read it to a couple of friends, they said, “I don’t know what you’re doing,” but they thought it was satisfying somehow. So I kept doing it.
Reagan: For me, I could really feel the movement in it. It had me up and walking around while I was reading it. You can really see how it would work well read in a classroom or performed. And I thought it was interesting to read when you had it paired with Rhaskos and his art, because so much of that was just about the movement and the lines.Schlitz: I don’t remember when I made the choice for Rhaskos to be an artist or why. I thought he was going to make oars, and it was impossible to find out anything about oars. I know they must have needed a lot of them because they had all these naval battles and they had all these ships, but I couldn’t find out anything about that, whereas there was an enormous amount about pottery.
I wanted something to sustain him in those years after his mother was taken away from him. Rhaskos has such a rough life. I think that his mother, in the first five years of his life, managed to convey to him that he was valuable, that he was the best of all the children, that he was precious. He was the sun on her horizon. He had something to go on, but then she leaves. What keeps him from just disintegrating is he’s able to see the beauty of the horse.
Reagan: I wanted to talk a little bit about how you use the gods. They turn up a lot in different ways in both books for youth and in Greek literature. Schlitz: I think that the gods that I chose have to do with the stages that the children are in, because in the Greek religious practice, you might be a little girl and you would worship Artemis. When you were a young bride, you might give more attention to Hera and Aphrodite. A young man going to sea would certainly be praying to Poseidon, and if he was going to war, he’d be praying to Ares. So they’re sort of sequential gods that imitate the different roles at stages in human life.
Reagan: I feel like I always overlooked the childbirth aspect of Artemis. Schlitz: It’s strange that she is associated with childbirth, because she’s also virginity, and she’s kind of a lady of the animals, so she’s a lot of different things.
Reagan: The oppositional relationship between Artemis and Melisto’s mother was really compelling to me, and I thought it was interesting, especially for this time period, to see a mother who was so dissatisfied at having a daughter, but a father who wasn’t. Schlitz: It’s interesting to read stories about childhood, because some say, “Well, a Greek parent would be very involved in their children, the grandparents would be more involved, and a Greek father would care,” but then you have Themistocles saying that his baby son was the most powerful man in Athens, because the son ruled the mother, and the mother ruled Themistocles, and Themistocles ruled Athens, and so the baby was clearly the most powerful of all people.
Reagan: The research you did for this book was clearly immense, just judging from your back matter. And a large part of what you talk about, there and throughout the book, is ancient Greece as a slave society. A lot of young students will have come to know about the concept of slavery primarily through its history in America. Can you talk a little about that and how you incorporated the dynamic of the slave society into this book? Schlitz: Moses Finley defined a slave society and said there have been five in the history of the world—ancient Greece and Rome, the colonial Caribbean, Brazil, and the American South. And you can see many patterns of similarity. In all, the enslaved were beaten; they lived in constant danger of being physically punished. In the case of the Greeks, many of their slaves were war captives from neighboring city-states. And in Greece, the slaves did not always do manual work. They could be bankers, they could be what we think of as policemen, and they could be teachers. That seems different to me from the American South.
Reagan: In the latter half of the book especially, you give the sense that slavery is so ingrained into the fabric of society that people don’t necessarily know how to live without it, including the people who are subject to it—there’s a line where you’re talking about how older enslaved people live in fear of being set free. Schlitz: Yes. Sometimes, when somebody got too old to work, the owners said, “OK, you’re free now. I don’t have to feed you. I don’t have to concern myself with what happens to you.” And that kind of freedom could be a sentence to starvation if you were frail and couldn’t support yourself.
The system of slavery was not questioned—or, at least, not by people who were writing things down. Euripides seemed to have a lot of sympathy for slaves, and some of the slaves in the tragedies have noble qualities; it’s clear that the playwright understood them as individuals. And, of course, in Aristophanes, the enslaved characters are making fun of their masters and plotting different kinds of revenge. But these writers didn’t question the institution. They couldn’t imagine not having it. And, as I said in my back matter, I would have loved it if Socrates had said, “This is wrong, and we have to stop this; this is a terrible evil,” but he didn’t. He wasn’t really critical of war either. These were accepted parts of life.
Reagan: You really see the hand of fate in this book, like you do in Greek mythology and a lot of Greek tragedy. It frames the whole book—in the first couple of pages, you tell us one of the characters is going to die young. Schlitz: I’m curious, did you remember that?
Reagan: I did because I kept wondering how it was going to happen! I don’t know if everyone will.Schlitz: I didn’t know how she was going to die. I remember at that point, after I’d finished the first hundred pages, my editor read the book, and she liked the book, but she said, “Do you have any idea what’s coming?” And I said, “I don’t know. I see the girl dancing at the edge of the water, and I think there’s a bear somewhere.” Because she’s a wonderful editor, she didn’t say, “You’re going to have to tell me more than that.”
I knew Socrates would be in the story, but she asked me where it was going, and I only had kind of an image of someone dancing in the near darkness. And I didn’t know whether I could get the bear into the story or not.
Reagan: So you also kind of rely on fate for your own processes.Schlitz: I guess, over the years, I’ve learned to trust images that stick in your mind. If you have an image of something, even if you have no idea how it’s going to fit in the story, you see if you can work toward it. Each of my books I love for different reasons. And this one was one where I had no idea what I was doing. I didn’t have a plan. I made it up as I went along, and I thought, “Well, this is crazy, but I might as well give it a try.”
And I really trusted myself. I didn’t understand what I was doing a lot of the time. And it reminded me of those puzzles you can find in craft shops, where you’ve got two pieces of metal and some wood, and you’re supposed to loosen them or tighten them, and I couldn’t see how to do it. I couldn’t see how to do it. I couldn’t see how to do it. Then suddenly, the pieces came apart. And I didn’t know how I had done it. And I guess I’m always complaining, because writing one book doesn’t teach you how to write the next book, because the next book is always different and it has its own needs and blank spaces.
This is my ninth book, and you think, “I am baffled and frustrated and tired,” and you can say, “Well, yeah, but you’ve been baffled and frustrated and tired before.” And it doesn’t necessarily mean that it’s over. It just means that you’re baffled and frustrated and tired.
Reagan: Was there anything else from the research that you weren’t able to include that you’d like to share?Schlitz: I spent some time flirting with Iphigenia, a woman in Greek mythology who was offered as a sacrifice to Artemis, because, depending on which scholar you read, her tomb is at Brauron. It’s a special place, sacred to Iphigenia. And I got interested in the whole idea of Iphigenia dying. There’s the fact that her father has sacrificed her, but she was supposed to have been substituted with a bear. I always overwrite, and you have to throw things out sometimes.
Reagan: Can you tell us what you’re working on next? Schlitz: After this epic scale, I wanted something miniature and cozy, so I’m working on a dollhouse book right now. It’s for younger children, but it’s a little bit based on my strophe-antistrophe approach, because it’s one of those books that I’m hoping will be a double book where, if you open it on one end, you learn about the little girl with a dollhouse and the old woman whom she befriends, and if you open it on the other end, it’s what happens to the dolls. So it’s a double story.
Reagan: That’s amazing. I wondered how much all of this research helps you, if you absorb it into other projects down the line.Schlitz: I think I do. And I think one of the reasons why this book has artifacts was because The Hired Girl had images. You pick up something and take it with you.
The Bearskinner: A Tale of the Brothers Grimm. Illus. by Max Grafe. 2007. 40p. Candlewick (9780763627300). Gr. 3–5. 398.2.A Drowned Maiden’s Hair. 2006. 400p. Candlewick (9780763629304). Gr. 6–9.Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village. Illus. by Robert Byrd. 2007. 72p. Candlewick (9780763615789). Gr. 5–8. 812.6.The Hero Schliemann: The Dreamer Who Dug for Troy. Illus. by Robert Byrd. 2006. 80p. Candlewick, o.p. Gr. 4–6. 930.1.The Hired Girl. 2015. 400p. Candlewick (9780763678180). Gr. 7–10.The Night Fairy. Illus. by Angela Barrett. 2010. 128p. Candlewick (9780763636746). Gr. 2–5.Princess Cora and the Crocodile. Illus. by Brian Floca. 2017. 80p. Candlewick (9780763648220). Gr. 1–3.Splendors and Glooms. 2012. 400p. Candlewick (9780763653804). Gr. 4–8.
Maggie Reagan is a Senior Editor at Booklist.
Register or subscribe today