God Bless America. White Christmas. The Easter Parade. Anything You Can Do (I Can Do Better). Alexander’s Ragtime Band. What do all of these songs have in common? Irving Berlin, a Jewish immigrant who came to America in 1893 to escape religious persecution and wound up writing songs that are embedded into our national fiber. Interestingly enough, there are 3 books coming out this year about Irving Berlin. The first that I have managed to get my hands on is Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by James Rey Sanchez.
*Note – I received a copy of this book from the #kidlitexchange for review purposes. All opinions are my own.
I’ve always thought that it was slightly comical that a Jewish immigrant wrote the classic song White Christmas. But other than loving the musicals that he was involved with, I will admit to have known little about the man behind the song. In Churnin’s picture book biography, young readers get to see him as the young boy who was escaping the pogroms in Russia and heading to America with his family in the hopes of a better life. The vision of the Statue of Liberty welcoming the immigrants would stay with him for life. Throughout the years he worked hard to make a better life for himself and his family – the true American dream.
One of the things that I especially like about Churnin’s take is how she brings in elements of the home that Berlin left while mixing it and comparing it to life in New York. The dichotomy of the dirt roads in Russia versus the tall buildings and rattling of the elevated train paints a perfect picture. All the while, Sanchez’s illustrations also show that New York at the turn of the century was a different place as well. The illustrations in this book help show the changing times that Berlin lived in as well as his inspirations.
Music had always been in Berlin’s soul and he found music in the sounds of the city all around him. Music wound up saving him when he started singing the tunes in his head while selling newspapers on the street corners to help feed his family. When that wound up getting him off of the streets and finding a way to make real money, he used his musical gift as a way to support the United States in World War I and II. The amazingly patriotic “God Bless America” was written originally for WWI but he reconfigured the song as an ode to the land he loved and then donated all of the royalties to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts of America.
I find it interesting that some reviews have commented that Churnin doesn’t specifically reference the fact that Berlin was Jewish. I knew from the first page when he had to leave Russia, but even more, in the second spread she has the passengers on his ship saying the Shema, mentions the shtetl he used to live in, the Yiddish he heard spoken around him, and later talks about the synagogue that his father goes to and the music of the cantor. Perhaps Churnin knows that it doesn’t matter what religion he was, the point she was trying to make is that he was an immigrant who made America his home. America has always been a land of immigrants, they are what make this country great.
I challenge myself to review a nonfiction picture book every week as part of the Nonfiction Picture Book Challenge, hosted by Kid Lit Frenzy and continue to be amazed at the high quality nonfiction picture books available. Check out Alyson’s site for a link-up of amazing nonfiction books!