One of our recommended books is Amber and Clay by Laura Amy Schlitz

AMBER AND CLAY


The Newbery Medal–winning author of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! gives readers a virtuoso performance in verse in this profoundly original epic pitched just right for fans of poetry, history, mythology, and fantasy.

Welcome to ancient Greece as only genius storyteller Laura Amy Schlitz can conjure it. In a warlike land of wind and sunlight, “ringed by a restless sea,” live Rhaskos and Melisto, spiritual twins with little in common beyond the violent and mysterious forces that dictate their lives. A Thracian slave in a Greek household, Rhaskos is as common as clay, a stable boy worth less than a donkey,

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The Newbery Medal–winning author of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! gives readers a virtuoso performance in verse in this profoundly original epic pitched just right for fans of poetry, history, mythology, and fantasy.

Welcome to ancient Greece as only genius storyteller Laura Amy Schlitz can conjure it. In a warlike land of wind and sunlight, “ringed by a restless sea,” live Rhaskos and Melisto, spiritual twins with little in common beyond the violent and mysterious forces that dictate their lives. A Thracian slave in a Greek household, Rhaskos is as common as clay, a stable boy worth less than a donkey, much less a horse. Wrenched from his mother at a tender age, he nurtures in secret, aided by Socrates, his passions for art and philosophy. Melisto is a spoiled aristocrat, a girl as precious as amber but willful and wild. She’ll marry and be tamed—the curse of all highborn girls—but risk her life for a season first to serve Artemis, goddess of the hunt.

Bound by destiny, Melisto and Rhaskos—Amber and Clay—never meet in the flesh. By the time they do, one of them is a ghost. But the thin line between life and death is just one boundary their unlikely friendship crosses. It takes an army of snarky gods and fearsome goddesses, slaves and masters, mothers and philosophers to help shape their story into a gorgeously distilled, symphonic tour de force.

Blending verse, prose, and illustrated archaeological “artifacts,” this is a tale that vividly transcends time, an indelible reminder of the power of language to illuminate the over- and underworlds of human history.

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  • Candlewick
  • Hardcover
  • March 2021
  • 544 Pages
  • 9781536201222

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$22.99

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About Laura Amy Schlitz & Julia Iredale (Illustrator)

Laura Amy Schlitz is the author of Amber and ClayLaura Amy Schlitz is the author of the 2008 Newbery Medal-winning Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices From a Medieval Village, illustrated by Robert Byrd, and the 2013 Newbery Honor book Splendors and Glooms. Schlitz lives in Baltimore, where she is a lower school librarian at the Park School.

 

 

 

 

Julia Iredale is the illustrator of Amber and ClayJulia Iredale is an artist working in Victoria, BC. Her work is inspired by her passion for mythology, history, and a love of fairy tales and fantasy of all kinds, weaving these influences together to create whimsical characters and beautiful, mysterious worlds.

Praise

“Schlitz (The Hired Girl) is a Newbery Medal winner, and hops from one style to another with tremendous skill. The story is told partly in verse and partly in prose; the voice alternates between first person and third person, with the gods — Hermes in particular — stepping in as occasional choruses to the action. The text is complemented by Julia Iredale’s delightful illustrations of imaginary archaeological finds: an ostracon (or pottery shard), a strigil (or scraper used to clean the body after exercise), some painted vases. They’re accompanied by museum exhibit cards, to give the reader information about what they depict.—The New York Times Book Review

“An artistic enslaved boy, ‘common as clay,’ and a free-spirited girl, ‘precious as amber,’ become ‘linked together by the gods’ in this drama of ancient Greece. . . Lyrically descriptive, surprisingly contemporary in feel, and laced with allusions to Greek mythology, history, and epic stories, the narrative offers a realistically diverse, colorful portrait of an ancient Greece in which slavery and warfare were prevalent. Black-and-white illustrations of archaeological artifacts add insight and depth to this meticulously researched story. A rich, complex, deftly crafted tale of friendship, creativity, and being true to oneself.—Kirkus Reviews (starred review)

“Curation, historical fiction, performance piece—Schlitz brings a bundle of learning, artifice, and intentionality to this highly stylized tale of ancient Greece. . .Schlitz deploys many voices; Hermes, Rhaskos, Hephaistos, Artemis, Sokrates, and more have their declamations, strophes, and antistrophes, characteristic of a Greek chorus and fitting for oral performance. . . Ambitious and original, this is stuffed with food for thought, often sparkling with wit and appropriate strangeness.—The Horn Book (starred review)

“In a lyrical verse novel packed with ancient myths and well-defined characters, Schlitz (The Hired Girl) takes readers to ancient Greece to tell the saga of two children, virtual strangers, who form a bond extending beyond life. . .the book is as meticulously researched as Schlitz’s previous novels, as evidenced in detailed descriptions of settings and lifestyles. Her exploration of the human condition (‘Nobody ever gets out of anything’) delves into both characters’ psyches through a pensive, contemporary-feeling narrative that easily propels readers along.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

Discussion Questions

1. Talk about Hermes and the role he plays in the book, which he describes as “guiding you through this story” (page 107). Describe his voice and give examples of his sense of humor. What important parts of the plot does he disclose in the first few pages, and why?

2. What does Hermes foreshadow about Rhaskos in the first chapter? What does Rhaskos tell you about himself in the first chapter he narrates? Describe his personality and his strengths, what he loves, and what he longs for. What are obstacles that he faces, and how does he deal with them?

3. What is Melisto like? Describe her relationship with her mother and explain why they clash. How does she interact with her father? What makes her a vivid character? Contrast her life at home with her life at Brauron, and explain why Brauron suits her so well. Discuss Rhaskos’s description to Melisto’s father of what she loved: “the bear cub, my mother, freedom, and you” (page 508).

4. How do the lives of Rhaskos and Melisto intersect, even before they meet each other? What is his role in her life before she dies? What is her role in his life after she dies? Describe their journey to Brauron. Why does Rhaskos say of Melisto, “She was more like me than anyone I ever knew” (page 484)?

5. How does the fact that he’s enslaved affect Rhaskos’s life in Thessaly and in Athens? How does slavery affect his mother? How does Menon treat Rhaskos, and why does Menon treat him this way? How does Phaistus treat him? What was Phaistus’s experience as an enslaved person and how does it give Rhaskos hope? Describe Zosima’s feelings toward Rhaskos. Does her attitude surprise you? Why do his feelings toward her change? Discuss the author’s note about slavery in Athens (pages 523–524).

6. What is life like for women and girls in this society? What work do they do? How are the lives of even well-to-do women and girls constricted? Give examples from the portraits of Lysandra and Melisto. What is Zosima’s life like? Why is it so important to her to have a child? How are the lives of enslaved women like Thratta even worse than those of free women?

7. Sokrates is one of the most famous philosophers of all time. How does the author portray him? What does Sokrates like to do? What does he value? Why is he so friendly to Rhaskos? What topics does he explore with the boy? Describe his trial and why he was found guilty. How did his values clash with those of some powerful citizens in Athens? Discuss Sokrates’s belief that the unexamined life is not worth living.

8. Who is Hephaistos and why does he look favorably on Rhaskos? At what point in the story do you know that Rhaskos could be an artist? What traits and actions make you think that? Which of the illustrated exhibits might be attributed to him? Why does Rhaskos associate Athens with being a creator, declaring, “I was Athenian, a maker” (page 400)?

9. Describe the different voices in the story and why the author included so many. Why do you think the chapters about Melisto are in prose and from a third-person point of view, whereas those about Rhaskos are first-person verse? Read the author’s note labeled “Greek Verse” (pages 519–521) and relate it to specific examples in the novel. Talk about the book’s title and why the author might have chosen it.

10. Review the illustrations labeled “exhibits.” What do the pictures and explanations add to the story? Choose a few of them and draw specific connections between the exhibit and the following chapter.

Excerpt

Melisto in Athens

“The gods sent that child to punish me!”

Melisto, who had just been soundly slapped, stopped bellowing, her mouth wide open. Her short life had taught her that slaves and children were often beaten; the idea that the gods might punish her mother attracted her strongly. She wiped her nose on the back of her hand and spoke directly to Lysandra. “What bad thing did you do?”

Lysandra clapped her hands to her ears. “Didn’t I tell you to be silent?” she demanded. “Do I have to smack you again?”

“No,” said Melisto, answering the second question. She bottom-scuttled across the floor, ducking under the loom, setting the loom weights clanking. Once safe, she peered around the frame. “What bad thing did you do?” she persisted. “Why did the gods —”

Lysandra lost her temper. She darted forward and caught her daughter by the elbow, almost upsetting the loom. Melisto felt her feet leave the floor. She reached out blindly, her fingers crooked like claws. Her hand closed over the necklace around her mother’s throat.

 

The cord snapped. Gold palm leaves fell with a sharp tinkle; the amber pendant dropped with a solid thud and rolled across the floor. Lysandra released her daughter and knelt to scoop up the pieces. Melisto retreated, her teeth bared.

Lysandra passed from fury to bafflement. She looked at the amber sphinx head in her palm; she touched the sore place on her neck, where the cord had broken. Two slave women stepped forward to calm her. They gathered the gold palmettes, showing Lysandra that none were damaged. Another cord, and the necklace would be as good as new. Melisto retreated behind the largest loom and shut her eyes to make herself invisible.

The weaving room where the women spent their days was a large space, crowded with oversized baskets, four looms, and three chairs. The windows faced south, and the light was strong. To Melisto, the yellow room was a prison. She hated the smell of new-dyed cloth, of lanolin and women’s sweat. The work she was taught there — picking through the wool for burrs, rolling it against her thigh — was the same thing over and over again. She could not bear it.

Someone was coming upstairs. Melisto pricked up her ears. Sosias, the head slave of the household, appeared in the doorway. Behind him was a tall woman with cropped hair: a slave. Melisto stepped around the loom to see the slave woman. Under her head wrap, her hair was orange. Her pale eyes were red-rimmed, and her face was a blank.

Sosias addressed Lysandra. “I’ve found you the woman you wanted. One hundred and eighty drachmas.” He opened his fingers to convey that this was a bargain. “She’s used to looking after children; she has a firm hand. The trader assured me she’s skillful with wool work.”

Lysandra had regained her dignity. She stood gracefully, and spoke in a soft voice. “Bring her forward. I want to look at her.”

Sosias stepped aside. The slave woman was a full head taller than Lysandra, and broader in the shoulders. Lysandra pursed her delicate lips. “What is she, Sosias? Thracian? Skythian? I don’t want a barbarian. Does she speak Greek?”

“She’s Thracian. There’s a slight accent, but she speaks Greek.”

“She doesn’t look well.” “She comes from Thessaly; she was seasick on the boat.” Sosias shrugged. “Maybe she hasn’t eaten. She comes from a good household; her master was son to Menon of Pharsalos. She’s never been sick a day. The trader swore by the gods.”

Lysandra’s eyes narrowed; she scrutinized the slave woman closely. Then she whirled round and caught Melisto by the arm. “This is the child you’ll have to tend. My daughter. She’s four years old and she’s a wild animal. As you can see, her hair is matted — it’s all cowlicks. I can’t get her to stand still so that I can comb it. Just now she tore my necklace off my neck — you see the mark on my throat! Do you think you can manage her?”

“I can manage her.”

“Good.” Lysandra clapped her hands lightly. “We’ll have the ceremony. After it’s over, you’ll take charge of Melisto. See if you can comb her hair.” She made a fluid and commanding gesture. Sosias stepped back to allow her to pass. Lysandra headed down the stairs, followed by the slaves.

Melisto knew how a new slave was made part of the household. She edged past her mother and arrived at the altar of Hestia before the adults did. The Thracian woman knelt before the altar while a bowl of dried fruit and nuts was poured over her head.

 

This act would please Hestia, goddess of the hearth, who would make the new servant fruitful in her service.

Melisto kept her eyes on the dried fruit. She was especially fond of figs. These belonged to the goddess, but she could palm one or two and eat them when no one was looking.

“We will call you Thratta,” Lysandra told the slave woman, “because you are a Thracian woman.”

The slave woman said nothing.

“You’ll go to the fountain house in the morning and fetch water. You’ll help with the wool work and take charge of the child.” Lysandra nodded toward Melisto. “Her father makes a pet of her, and she’s been badly spoiled.”

At the mention of her father, Melisto glowed. She adored her father. Arkadios was a busy man, a citizen and a soldier; he was away during the day and went to banquets in the evening. Melisto seldom saw him. But when she did, he tossed her in the air and swung her in circles; he let her climb on him and listened when she chattered. Melisto knew, because her mother complained of it, that few men loved their daughters as Arkadios doted on her.

“You’ll sleep upstairs,” Lysandra told the slave woman. “Come. I’ll show you.”

She led the way up the stairs. The other two slaves turned to watch them go. Melisto snatched up two fistfuls of dried fruit, darted to the open door, and trotted out into the courtyard. Freedom! She loved the courtyard, where there were animals to watch: birds and insects and a tortoise as big as her father’s bronze helmet. In one shady corner of the courtyard, she was digging a hole. When it was deep enough, she would fill it with water and make a pool.

In an instant she was down on her knees, grubbing in the dirt. She worked energetically, patting the excavated earth into a mound and pounding it hard. The hole was wide and deep: a little more work, and she would be able to sit in it. When the slave woman emerged from the house, Melisto scowled and shrank back into the shadows.

The slave woman saw her. She was carrying a comb, a sponge, and a large water jar. But to Melisto’s surprise, she made no approach. She sat down on a block of stone and lifted the water jug to her mouth. It was a pitcher made for pouring, not drinking, and as the woman drank, the water splashed down her face, wetting her neck and the front of her gown.

Melisto watched intently. She had never seen anyone drink so much. It struck her that the woman must be very thirsty. She remembered that Sosias had said she hadn’t eaten. Melisto picked up her last fig. It was coated with dirt from the hole, but she would not have hesitated to eat it herself.

The woman poured water on the sponge and washed her face. She squeezed the sponge so that water squirted down her arms. Once she had dried her hands on her dress, she turned her eyes on Melisto.

Prompted by an impulse she didn’t understand, Melisto went forward and held out the fig.

The woman accepted it mechanically. She brushed off the dirt and put it in her mouth. She chewed slowly; Melisto could hear the grit against her teeth. After she swallowed, the woman picked up the comb.

Melisto shifted her weight to her back foot, poised to flee. But she was not quick enough. The woman caught her hands.

“I’m going to comb the knots out of your hair. I’m going to hold your hair in clumps, very tight, and comb out the ends. That way, it won’t hurt. Do you understand?”

“No,” said Melisto. She lowered her head like a bull about to charge.

“Now,” said the woman. She swung Melisto around, pinning her between her knees. She took a handful of Melisto’s matted hair.

Melisto flinched. She thought of shrieking—she could scream loud enough to make everyone in the house put their hands over their ears — but something in the woman’s silence dumbfounded her. She submitted, shifting her weight from foot to foot as the woman eased the mats out of her hair. The slave woman’s hands were deft and sure, lifting the damp locks away from her hot neck. Melisto hunched one shoulder in pleasure. When the braids were finished, she allowed Thratta to turn her around and wipe her face with the sponge.

Melisto spoke boldly. “I want to sit in your lap.”

The slave woman moved her head: No.

Melisto paid no attention. She crawled up on the woman’s knees, leaned back, and stuck her thumb in her mouth.

The Thracian woman smelled bad. There were the ordinary smells of sweat and wool, but beyond that was another odor that the animal in Melisto found disturbing. She shifted, wrinkling her nose. Her eyes fell to the woman’s arms. “What’s that?” she asked, rubbing the row of Vs with one finger. “How did you get them on your arm?”

The slave woman shuddered. Her mouth opened in an ugly grimace, releasing a cry of agony. She wept, her tears striking Melisto’s face.

Melisto trembled. That terrible smell was suffering. She squirmed, but now the woman’s arms were clutching her, rocking her back and forth. Melisto hid her face against the woman’s breast and cried along with her. She was as frightened as if she were out in a thunderstorm.

The storm subsided. The slave woman gulped and sniffed. Melisto could feel her pulling the grief back inside. In a moment, she found herself pushed out of the lap. The woman took the dirty sponge out of the water jar and lifted the jug to her lips. Once again she drank as if she were dying of thirst.

Melisto stuck out her hand. “I want some, too.”

Thratta’s eyes met Melisto’s. She handed over the jug of dirty water and let Melisto drink.

Text copyright © 2021 by Laura Amy Schlitz