By an odd turn of events, my third story was published first. The first two were near completion and ready for a professional edit. I think this may be how it happened:
I hope you won't mind if I toot my horn, but I nearly had a heart attack (in a good way) when I read this review of The Caroler. That the reviewer, Cristina Prescott, was a careful reader, focused on detail and nuance, made it even more rewarding. That she had some really nice things to say about the writing, was a truly humbling experience for me. But I'll toot anyway and share it with the world:
The Caroler by Liza Martini is a brilliant retelling of the tale of the Nutcracker, intelligently executed with lovable characters and strong plot points, bringing about a denouement that couldn’t be more satisfying.
Having been in a dark basement all along, Nutcracker no longer believes he can live any other way than the wooden manikin. That is until he awakens in his excelsior crate to discover other figurines, Carol and Glory, staring at him. When the Grace Light animates toys and dolls that have human likeness, Nutcracker finds it hard to reconnect to the person he once was, cursed and condemned to a life he abhors. But thanks to the patient prodding of Carol, who slowly touches his heart and moves him to step beyond the shell into which he has imprisoned himself. Can he ever find redemption and the goodness that once possessed his heart?
The Caroler is a beautiful tale that is filled with religious symbolism, a tale of light overcoming darkness, and a story of the triumph of goodness. The characters are stunningly imagined and written in a fascinating context. Liza Martini builds a strong plot while exploring Nutcracker’s backstory with ingenuity, allowing his background to influence the way he relates to other characters.
In the end, it is an extraordinary work of art and beauty. The atmospheric writing presents a detailed and expertly executed setting, with sounds, smells, and feel of things intelligently captured, from the heavy air after the rainfall, the smells of exhaust and pond water mixed with the steamy scent of popcorn to the warm summer feel at the opening pages of the tale. The suspense is strong and the readers are enthralled as they want to know what happens to Colonel Christoph Zacharias Drosselmeier, “Nutcracker” and if he can remember how to break the curse. While the humor is exacting, the writing is infused with magical realism and a unique sense of humanity. The story is peppered with lyrics that augment the poetic quality of the writing while creating a unique music to the ear. It is, indeed, a delightful read.
The Caroler is Live!
When I met Carol, I felt as if I had always know her, there in her winter furs on the table at a summer tent sale, in the middle of July. She was a stoic little figurine, caught in a pose of perpetual song. But as a singer myself, I could see that she had excellent technique: her breathing and posture were correct, her lips shaped to the vowel, while here jaw was dropped and relaxed. She held her book up and out, allowing for less tension in her neck, and of course, to better see the choir director. By listening carefully I could just hear her sweet soprano voice. But not wanting to alarm the other shoppers I simply snapped off her picture and took it home, where I set her to my desktop, and there she remained for a year or two, until I could not NOT write her story. As for Colonel Drosselmeier, he already resided on my desk next to my laptop, and as I began to write Carol, he became more and more insistent that his story be included.
But back to the lovely Carol. She was a young lady of the nineteenth century—very Victorian, and participating in what had become a beloved tradition. If you can imagine that gritty setting in newly industrialized England, with all its dirty air, foul smells, noisy machinery, and add to that the poverty that sudden economic change brings, that would be Carol’s setting. So then imagine, a group of carolers passing through the crowded streets of London, spreading cheer and hope with their light-hearted songs and Christmas hymns. But where, exactly, did Christmas caroling come from? How did it begin?
In its earliest form a carol was a circle dance, which is why so many of the surviving songs have a rhythm and tempo that lilt and jump and keep the toe tapping. Think of songs like, I Saw Three Ships, God Rest Ye, Patapan, In Dulci Jubilo, The Holly and the Ivy, or a Wassail song. It would be impossible to talk about caroling without first mentioning Wassail (the more bawdy parent of caroling), which meant, “be well” in Old Norse, and was common as far back as 1200 A.D. People would walk the streets shouting or singing words of cheer. These were secular sentiments for the most part—religious songs and hymns were not sung outside the church, and then mostly only chanted by choirs. Wassail chants were often humorous, and maybe even a little off-color. In spite of its ribald reputation, words such as, Love and Joy Come to You,” were common and often rewarded with a spicy beverage that eventually took on the name Wassail. Once the behavior and treat were firmly linked, the reciters would boldly announce, “Here We Come a-Wassailing”.
The “Love and Joy” theme was not just a Christian echo of the Apostle Paul’s words, but a common theme throughout folk music. If life was short, difficult, fraught with upheavals and reversals, you were happy to receive a blessing when it was offered. There can be no joy without the very real proximity to suffering; it exists apart from suffering and has little to do with happiness, and more to do with Hope. Love and Joy, then, are more of a reminder to us that we can have them if we will.
So, as a circle dance, with mostly secular lyrics, it was very much a folk activity. That said, there seems to be a connection with the earliest tradition of caroling and hymn singing to St. Francis of Assisi in the very early 13th century. By imposing Christian texts onto simple folk melodies they were able to create something new: the Christmas hymn or carol. St Francis encouraged people to include music in the church services, and especially Christmas observances. Soon, the parishioners took these beyond the church walls to enjoy, and the carol, as we know it, began its slow evolution. But, the form was still reputed to have its roots in the secular wassail, and so not wholly endorsed by the Church. Still, the tunes and the lyrics were beginning to separate themselves from the somewhat gloomy chants and plainsong of the Middle Ages, making them gain in popularity.
It wasn’t till the 15th century that caroling came into its own. Now came the development of the Mystery Play, or plays about the birth of Christ or doings of saints. They naturally needed songs with melodies that would appeal, such as the folk tunes, free from puritanical restraints. This gave momentum to the ballad, which also began as a dance and developed into the narrative song we know it to be. From ballad came the word, ball. Music of this sort quickly became very popular. Now people went about at Christmas time singing carols and ballads about the story of the miraculous birth of Christ, but they also sang secular songs as well. Any song that brought blessing to the season and warmed the listener was welcomed. The music was fresh, exciting, and accessible—a winning combination meant there was no holding back. As with classic stories, classic songs never die, and as a result, we have so many songs from that era. Genius, inspiration, and talent come together only occasionally to give us such a trove of timeless treasures. In the period for which Carol was created, many of the songs included in her song book were already considered much-loved and long-established Christmas hymns.
And the tradition continues each year with a throng of new songs; most will not make it into the canon. I remind myself that, because of the popularity of the singer, there are some who find warmth and good cheer in the rendition of the song, and maybe their Christmas will be a little brighter because of it. But only the best will rise to the top and be available for generations to come.
The sources used for this history come from The Oxford Book of Carols, Oxford University Press, Oxford, Percy Dreamer, R. Vaughan Williams, Martin Shaw, eds. (1964); Acadia Publishing; and Wikipedia.
PS--If you would like to Review The Caroler, please follow the link to purchase eBook or hardcopy.
Cancel American Chestnut Tree Blight!
Six years ago to the date, or November 23, 2014, I squirreled away a Washington Post newspaper article entitled, A GMO rescue for America’s iconic chestnut tree? By Tamar Haspel. Ms. Haspel was actually reviewing a book by Susan Freinkel called, American Chestnut: The Life, Death, and Rebirth of a Perfect Tree. What an odd coincidence that I should rediscover this story exactly six years later. But then, maybe not. It is fall, after all—the time when we start seeing chestnuts in the grocery stores or from vendors on city streets. Maybe I just could not get them out of my head.
It was this article that inspired me to write Squirrels of Vienna Farms, now in development. It begins with the Great Chestnut Blight, which forms the background folklore for the story. Large and varied squirrel families, who have lived in the forest for generations are forced to emigrate when the chestnut forest becomes sickened with blight and the trees start to die off. In my research I learned how adept squirrels are at staying ahead of such catastrophe. They actually do emigrate in mass, and can often accomplish great distances from the treetops when there are enough of them, causing the forest to shudder and shake under their vast numbers.
In my story, the squirrels end up settling in farmland surrounded by forests and are quite happy there. But before long the farmland is paved over, houses are built and the squirrels, rather than emigrate, simply adapt. That is how the story begins. In order to adapt to their changing surroundings, they will need to remember who they are and find strength and courage in the lore that has been handed down to them for generations.
But back to the American Chestnut: this much-loved tree, so much a part of life in the eastern and northeastern Americas, developed a spore sickness around 1904 and all but disappeared. No more yummy, highly nutritious nuts for humans, animals, and livestock, or wood for furniture and houses, or konkers for games. Not to mention its medicinal properties that the natives used. That’s a big claim: food, shelter, medicine and entertainment all in one tree. Adding to that, you could even call it a money tree; people would return to the forest year after year to collect the nuts to sell. A tradition and a way of life evaporated with these majestic trees—three to four billion of them! It’s hard to imagine how this continent looked with its pristine forests, but the American Chestnut was a prominent and much-needed presence among them.
It is comforting to think that the chestnut was on the menu when pilgrims sat down to dine and give thanks with the Wampanoag Indians, considering how close they came to starvation after their first year. Despite all their difficulty in finding and starting subsistence crops, discovering the forests knee-deep in food surely brought another pilgrimage to their mind when God sent manna from heaven. This straight-grained, hardwood tree was nearly one hundred feet tall, and often ten to twelve feet in diameter. Prolific and fast growing, it began producing nuts at seven or eight years old, and one tree could produce as much as one thousand pounds in one year and live anywhere from two to eight hundred years. That’s a lot of food!
There are currently nine species of chestnuts in the northern hemisphere, but the most common are the European, Chinese, Japanese, and American. A self-fertilizing tree, the leaves contain nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium, insuring a constant supply of these nutrients in the soil. In the spring the catkins (tree flowers) form on the trees and look like great clouds. Then as now, they are a favorite of honeybees and other pollen-loving insects.
It seems hyperbolic to say the chestnut tree has been around for 50 million years, but its discovery (in many places on the earth) through various excavations proves its presence for the last tens of thousands at least, by some estimates. If it was beleaguered by climate or catastrophe it resolutely marched off in a different direction. So it bogles the mind that a tree so able and ready to adapt could be so stymied by a little sickness.
The spore that infected The American Chestnut was brought over with an imported Asian chestnut tree in the late eighteen hundreds, and at a time when the hazard of such things was not understood. Within fifty years, the American variety was devastated. This new tree was smaller and could not come close to producing the quantity of nuts that one American tree could generate in a year. Nor could it cover vast tracts of land claiming exclusivity and dominance. Sadly, the infecting spore still exists today, but it cannot live in the ground, so it doesn’t affect the root of the tree. It simply kills the upper portion—everything above the infected area. It is possible to find the American Chestnuts growing in the forest, but it is extremely unlikely they will ever reach maturity because they soon fall victim to the same spore.
But take heart—many efforts have been underway to restore this tree since the mid 1940’s. Natural selection was unsuccessful, and scientists tried breeding it with the Asian chestnut, but that alone was also ineffectual. But in the 1980’s and 90’s, using nascent GMO technology, they began to inject the tree embryo with a gene that was resistant to the spore. Initial efforts were a failure, and the first trees died within a few years, but through trial and error they are now finally beginning to see results. This is a very slow and painstaking process and will, no doubt, require a careful curating to keep the trees viable until they are strong enough to exist on their own once again. Cross breeding with Chinese chestnut and gene therapy will hopefully create the resistance this tree needs in order to make a comeback. Our grandchildren and great-grandchildren will benefit from all these efforts, not to mention all the animal life that it will once again feed and support.
This history now becomes part of our own lore. Something to teach our children as Wize Mel taught Chister and his friends in Squirrels of Speedwell Farms: “Wize Mel reminded Chister that squirrels had a knack for surviving disaster, and that not only would they endure this mystery, but solve it, remedy the problem, and somehow use it for their own purpose to benefit all Squirreldom.” I think we can learn a lot from squirrels.
A Luddite Weighs In
This morning, I ran across (more) research comparing digital reading vs. print, and I must say I lightly scanned the online article because my eyes were tired, so I may have missed a few things.
As much as I adore children’s books in the hardcopy, I do find my Kindle easier to read, and more accommodating in the evening, when I prefer to linger outside after sunset with my cats and a few mosquito sticks. If I want to read in bed, it’s not necessary to turn on the light. I love the electronic ink and find it perfect for all my pleasure reading. But when we read for information, hard copy, print books are hard to beat. We page back and forth leaving tabs, highlighting certain texts, penciling in the margin, dog-ear the pages, spill soda on the page with the most interesting pictures, etc. A good non-fiction book lends itself to a breadcrumb trail so we can find our way back.
The research in the article stresses the differences in the two formats and brings out the weak points of both. In a nutshell, online information encourages cursory scanning, multitasking (of things other than study), and it’s hard on the eyes. We read screens differently than we read print. We absorb information differently, so even when our digital textbook has proper headings, chances are we didn’t read all the text – or at least not well, so we have difficulty finding the item for review.
There is also some emotional psychology that goes with the picking-up of a book. When you pull out your math book, your history book, or your science book, you change hats. You switch gears, and the book tells you it’s time to think critically on the subject at hand. When you pick up your pleasure reading you get a little brain tickle. But maybe that’s just me. The point is, when you are tied to a screen for your entire education, what are you to do? Switch laptops for each subject – each bearing colorful stickers of math, history, science, etc.? I should mention that none of this is in the study. It’s purely mine.
I’m glad to know that I am not just another Luddite griping about technology that will someday take over and dominate humanity. People DO seem to enjoy being moored to something; the heft of the book, the smell of the paper, the sound of a turning page. Oh, and the smell of the paper.
There may be some evidence that digital is more suitable for non-fiction topics, which makes sense, given that exposition and analysis are easily scan-able for key words. However, depending on the subject, academic classes consist mostly of non-fiction. But that may also depend on the institution.
Sadly, while students from 4 years to 40 are forced into virtual courses right now, this debate rages on in a timely fashion. There are a few things you can do to mitigate that ball-and-chain relationship with all your devices. Where possible, print out what you can. Of course, not everyone has a printer, and these days, who can afford the paper? If a PDF is not offered, cut and paste to a Word document (and delete all the other nonsense). Yes, I am proposing you create your own textbook, so please be respectful of copyright, and be sure to credit the author. Short of that, make your study time as focused as possible – fewer distractions, slower reading, note-taking – anything you can do to enhance your digital learning will help you get the most from the text.
For a more scholarly look at this topic, join The Conversation and read, Do Students Lose Depth in Digital Reading? But, may I recommend the PDF.
Reading in the Time of COVID-19
Are you COVID weary? Has the pandemic turned you into a germaphobe leaving little hope that things will ever go back to normal? One thing remains the same: We can always escape to good books. Run away and find a sunny spot, a cozy corner, or a patch of grass on which to spread a blanket. Thank heavens for the [predominantly] nice weather we have been afforded to make this time more bearable.
I imagine, that as the long summer stretches out before us, many of you have found routines that work for your family. I hope that those routines include books and story time. It is never too early to read to a child as I learned with my own baby. They love the sound of your voice, the closeness, and the excitement of hearing a story. If reading is a part of your daily routine, you’ve learned that you can choose a longer story and finish it over two or three days. It builds anticipation and accommodates shorter attention span. One of the most important things you can do is model book reading to your children.
It's no surprise that books for little ones about germs and viruses are hitting the market now. While I would caution against overwhelming children with scary facts, we can sensibly teach them how illnesses work, how we cope with them, and most importantly, how we can do our best to avoid them. It is strongly recommended that you always read a book first before sharing it to make sure it's a good fit for your child. Check out some of the recently-added titles on the Preschool-2nd grade page. I will be adding titles as I find them.
With the closure of libraries and retail stores, you can still find plenty of classics in public domain. Gutenberg Project has been digitizing media since 1995, and you can have access to over 60,000 books free of charge. Readable on your internet browser, or electronic device, the children’s stories often carry the oldest illustrations, so make sure your device can display them well. Here is the link to the Children’s Bookshelf.
Goodreads offers a few titles, and Gateway to the Classics is a source for stories that are still loved today. Library of Congress copies original publications, and these can be printed or simply viewed online. If your search query leads you to an edu extension, you may have tapped into a university’s treasure trove of cultural fairytales, like The Story of Hard Nut, from Nutcracker and Mouseking.
Have you read a good book that you would like to see on the lists? I invite you to email me and tell me what you liked most about your recommendation.
Early Literacy Predictors
I recently enrolled in an Early Literacy Predictors class presented by a delightful former kindergarten teacher, and sponsored by the county in which I reside. We have just completed the first session and I look forward to four more weeks of valuable and insightful information about how young children, ages 3-5, learn vocabulary and increase their success for literacy and comprehension. While the material we are using can red-flag learning disorders that might slow or prevent a child from hearing, speaking, or making the necessary associations required for literacy, our first session revolved around best practices in the classroom and at home for children on a normal developmental path.
It should be no surprise to most people (and I was so pleased to hear it) that enriching conversations, respect for the child’s level of skill, and great stories (and lots of them), are absolutely key to building vocabulary and laying the foundation of not only literacy, but of fostering a lifetime relationship with books. I may be coming at this topic with a bit of bias, but that’s only because when I sit in a corner of a classroom and open a book children flock to my side like bees to pollen in anticipation of a story. But it doesn’t stop there: before I finish one book, they’ve chosen another, and then another. They are developmentally primed to hunger for the empowerment of language that reading stories offers them. Repetition of a book tunes their ears to sounds and meanings of the words. If there was something they didn’t understand the first time, a second (or third, or fourth) reading gives them a chance to hear it again or maybe ask a question. Recreating objects and characters with crayons, clay, or blocks strengthens their associative abilities, and play acting increases the who-what-why comprehension of the story.
Conversation can never be underestimated when it comes to strengthening the language skills that are fundamental to reading and comprehension. Enriching exchanges (that go beyond instruction) can help a child realize he is his own person – apart from the adults in his life. But these moments with children in this age group can be hit-or-miss, particularly with a 3-year old. You need to be ready to listen when they are ready to talk. However, asking questions will encourage them to think and speak about an activity, story, or concern. Simple questions allow the child and adult the back-and-forth, or give-and-take convention of conversation. Open-ended questions, where there is more than one possible answer encourages imaginative thought. Closed-ended questions have only one correct answer and force a child to consider the facts of the story you’ve just read, or something discussed. Of these two, open-ended questions can be the most challenging for parent and teacher. Our instructor recommended that we keep a repertoire of Who, Where, How, and What Would Happen If” questions that can be useful conversational tools to have at hand. Also, making simple statements and observations about an activity can be an occasion to introduce a new word into their vocabulary: “Feel the tension on the rope you are pulling.” Or, “You’ve made an impression of your hand in the mud.”
Wordless books are a fabulous way to combine the two. One that we considered in class, It Looks Like Spilt Milk, by Charles G. Shaw, offers the intimacy of story time, with the opportunity for conversation, discussion, and imaginative thinking. There is no limit on the words you can use to describe objects and themes found there. As children become familiar with all the phonological, semantic, and syntactic mechanics of language they gain confidence and are propelled to the next level. They are now excited about writing their own letters and drawing pictures that tell their own stories. A large, early vocabulary with a firm knowledge of the alphabet, the ability to rapidly recite the letters and their corresponding sounds is an indication that they are ready to begin reading and writing words; forming sentences.
Giving children this strong foundation begins at home, is furthered and enhanced in school, and reinforced by everyday conversations around them. Our instructor presented a study from the National Early Literacy Panel which discovered a large “Word Gap” in children of differing backgrounds. For various reasons, economic or cultural, some kids start school with as many as 30,000 fewer words at their disposal. If sheer number of words indicates academic readiness, this appears to be a blatant handicap. But to say he will not catch up reasonably fast is to underestimate human ability and determination. From an anecdotal perspective, I have known of instances where children from highly disadvantaged homes were driven to books and reading for the escape that it offered. Of course, this may be the exception, but children have such facility for language, such resilience for living and learning, and a gut-wrenching need to fit in with their peers, that I believe there is so much we can do to mitigate those lesser circumstances. Children who are at-risk may have residual problems for a lifetime, but language, and the love of reading, does not necessarily have to be one of them. A strong handle on language is very empowering. Equipping young ones with strong vocabulary allows them to engage with their culture, their faith, and the world in general.
I’m looking forward to our next session: Print Motivation and Awareness.
Hello, and welcome to The B-double-O-double-K-double-E and P-The Book Keep--the official home of Liza Martini. We hope you will make The Book Keep a go-to resource for all your academic and recreational reading.
Liza currently has two books in development and you can be sure she will brag about them right here, so
please keep checking back!
The Caroler is a Winner!