Happy Flag Day! To celebrate, let’s wave our flags, raise our voices in song, and celebrate the immigrants who contribute so much to our country, like the subject of today’s Perfect Picture Book.
Title: Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing
Written By: Nancy Churnin
Illustrated By: James Rey Sanchez
Publisher/Date: Creston Books/2018
Suitable for Ages: 7-12
Themes/Topics: biography, composer, immigrant, patriotism, singing
Irving stood on tiptoe to see over the rail. Behind him, too far to glimpse, was Russia where angry Cossacks had burned his family’s home to ashes. Ahead was America. What would they find there?
Brief Synopsis: A cradle-to-grave biography of Irving Berlin, a young Jewish immigrant who shared his love of his adopted homeland by composing a beloved anthem.
Links to Resources:
- Listen to some of the over 1,500 songs that Irving Berlin composed. Do you have a favorite?
- Listen to Kate Smith’s first performance of God Bless America;
- Churnin features a Make America Sing page on her website, where she encourages readers to celebrate their heritage and that of classmates and friends;
- Check out the Curriculum Guide found at Creston Books for more ideas.
Why I Like this Book:
Churnin has written a lyrical biography that introduces young readers to the composer who wrote a song that most, if not all, will recognize. But many, including adult readers, may not know that Irving Berlin was a Jewish immigrant who as a young child fled Russia with his family to escape persecution, that he left home at 13 to support himself after his father’s death, and that he sold newspapers and was a singing waiter before composing the first of over 1,500 songs, including many popular Broadway shows. And though Berlin became rich and famous for his catchy tunes, Churnin informs readers that “he never took a penny for ‘God Bless America.’” All proceeds from that song he donated to the Girl and Boy Scouts. As Churnin notes, it was his way of sharing the “music in his heart’, his “thank you” to America, the country that opened its doors to him and other refugees in the late 19th century.
I think Churnin’s focus on Berlin’s difficult childhood will help young readers to empathize with Berlin. I think, too, that her focus on his persistence will resonate. Music lovers of all ages will enjoy learning about Berlin. Irving Berlin will make a welcome addition to classroom and home libraries.
Sanchez’ muted-tone illustrations add an early-to-mid 20th century feel to the text. I love the sense of crowding in the early, tenement scenes, and I especially love the pop of red that punctuates the drab backgrounds, generally on a long red scarf that mimics the flow of the Hudson River and the notes on a music staff.
A Note about Craft:
In a StoryStorm post this past January, Churnin advised writers interested in exploring historical topics to “make a date with history” and research important anniversaries when trying to determine who, or what, to write about. She followed her own advice, as Irving Berlin appeared on bookshelves in 2018, the 100th anniversary of God Bless America. Churnin’s latest picture book biography, Martin & Anne: The Kindred Spirits of Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank, was published in time for the 100th anniversary of the birthdays of these two important people. Who, or what, will you choose as your next non-fiction picture book topic?
In an interview on The Picture Book Buzz recently, Churnin mentioned that an “aha” moment for her occurred when a friend noted that Berlin incorporated a Jewish melody into God Bless America. This became Churnin’s “way into” the story. Identifying that “tidbit” that resonates and becomes a theme in a story is so important for any writer, but especially for someone trying to condense a long life into limited text, all while trying to make it interesting and accessible to young children. It also could be something that sets your book apart from others, just in case, as happened with the anniversary of God Bless America, you aren’t the only one writing and publishing a picture book about it.
This Perfect Picture Book entry will be added to Susanna Hill’s Perfect Picture Book list. Check out the other great picture books featured there!