IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING
Irving Berlin came to the United States as a refugee from Tsarist Russia, escaping a pogrom that destroyed his village. Growing up on the streets of the lower East Side, the rhythms of jazz and blues inspired his own song-writing career. Starting with his first big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin created the soundtrack for American life with his catchy tunes and irresistible lyrics. With "God Bless America," he sang his thanks to the country which had given him a home and a chance to express his creative vision.
“An immigrant, a talent—and America itself was changed. The true story of Irving Berlin, his songs, and American music. Beautifully, artfully done.”
—Jane Yolen, award-winning author of How Do Dinosaurs Say Goodnight
“Nancy Churnin does a remarkable job of condensing Irving Berlin’s long and productive life into a narrative that will appeal to children and introduce them to one of America’s greatest songwriters.”
—Philip Furia, author of Irving Berlin: A Life in Song
“A delightful historical narrative with pop, pizzazz, and color, just like Irving Berlin himself. Children and adults alike will enjoy reading this fantastic journey to the birth of the song God Bless America.”
—Mary Jo Guidice, Director of Libraries, Dallas
"...Irving was a machine, churning out all those patriotic songs. That he had good reason to do so. That when he created “God Bless America” it was an amalgamation of his past and his present and the world (and times) in which he lived. More to the point, it’s yet another reminder that this man was an immigrant who paid back his new country tenfold with his talent. Together, Churnin and Sanchez have created a timely biography that says a lot about the world in which we live and, as a bonus, just happens to be gorgeous to the eye and ear alike. More like this please!"
--Betsy Bird, Fuse 8, School Library Journal
"A book to share that celebrates an immigrant and his abiding love for his adopted country, its holidays, and his “home sweet home.”
Chrunin cuts right to the heart of Berlin’s story and together with Sanchez’s illustrations, they create a simple, heart-felt biography of the composer. I would love to use this in any music class.
--Kiss the Book, EL (K-3), EL – ESSENTIAL. Cindy, Library Teacher
"This richly-colored picture biography details Irving Berlin's younger years as he struggled to develop his musical talent. The illustrations make evocative use of shadow and light, creating a sense of movement across the pages. The reader is drawn into Berlin's world of New York streets and music-filled rooms. The text is dense enough to be informative, yet spare enough to keep the attention of young readers. This lovely book is highly recommended for ages 7 to 12."
--Jewish Book Council
Irving Berlin and his family arrived in America as countless immigrant families did: in New York Harbor, with the Statue of Liberty serving as a welcoming beacon (“ ‘God bless America,’ Irving whispered”). Through vivid storytelling, Churnin describes young Irving’s impressions of the unfamiliar city: “Walking home, the melodies in his head mixed with the crack of stickball games, the wail of the ragmen, and the creak of cartwheels on the cobblestones.” After his father’s death, Berlin earns money by writing and singing songs on the street, then at a restaurant; a fortuitous job at a song-writing company leads to his success. Yet Churnin recounts how fame doesn’t diminish Berlin’s gratitude for his life in America: he gave all of the proceeds for his hugely popular song “God Bless America” to the Girl Scouts and Boy Scouts. Sanchez’s handsomely stylized graphics offer visual depth that hints at the many stories unfolding within Berlin’s New York City community; readers will recognize Berlin in the crowds by his long red scarf, which curls emotively throughout the pages. Ages 7–12. (May)
...a fascinating and accessible picture book biography of the great songwriter, in a lovely narrative that is alive with music from the very beginning.
--Jean Westmoore, The Buffalo News
Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing can be used as a stand-alone biography, and is also useful for building background knowledge related to immigration, fine arts, New York, and patriotism. With its thorough back matter and especially fine binding, this is a worthwhile addition to school and home bookshelves.
--Gary Anderson, "What's Not Wrong"
"Irving Berlin’s life sings in this beautifully illustrated, crisply told biography. Churnin tells us how and why he came to this country at age 5, escaping a pogrom in Tsarist Russia. She writes about the financial struggles when his father dies, his beginnings as a songwriter and how his songs captured the love of his adopted country and won the hearts of the American people. An author’s note and timeline fill in biographical data. The exuberant artwork captures the flavor and the rhythms of early 20th-century New York City."
--Joanna Kraus, San Jose Mercury News
"James Rey Sanchez’s snazzy, jazzy work is sharp and angular, with a little bit of a midcentury Shag vibe. Irving Berlin is punctuated by Irving’s long red scarf, flowing like the Hudson River and swirling like a melody through the pages, past the Katz’s deli sign, down narrow alleys, through restaurants, across a snowy Battery Park. The book itself, like a scarf, is elongated and narrow, adding to the hipster feel. The text is the most poetic, occasionally self-consciously so. As the ship bearing the Baline family pulls into New York Harbor and everyone spots the Statue of Liberty, Churnin writes, “The passengers whispered, then a melody rose and flew to her like Noah’s dove in search of safe land: Shema Yisroel—Hear, O Israel. Irving’s heart lifted and soared.… One day, Irving promised himself, I am going to write a song just for her.” (I’d like to think this is true, since children are literal creatures and I get agita about writers taking liberties in biographies for children, but I have no clue.) The book circles back to note that the song “God Bless America” ended with “three notes from the Shema, as he remembered hearing them on the boat, coming to America, long ago, when the Statue had smiled at his prayer.” It took me a few moments to figure it out: “Adonai Echad” has turned into “my home sweet home.” Lovely.
--Marjorie Ingall, Tablet
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.
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.
This children’s picture book about one of America’s greatest songwriters – who wasn’t actually born in the United States of America – is an absolutely marvelous biographical tribute. Author Nancy Churnin somehow manages to tell the entire Irving Berlin life story in thirty-two gorgeously illustrated pages, hitting the highlights, catching the struggles and the passions of the young man who gave us songs such as “Alexander’s Ragtime Band” “Easter Parade” “White Christmas” and “God Bless America.”
Although I had heard it before, I had forgotten that Irving Berlin never took any money, personally, for “God Bless America” but instead donated the proceeds to Girl and Boy Scouts.
Churnin captures the spirit of the American Dream – that America is a land of infinite possibilities and that you can do or be anything or anyone if you want it badly enough and work for it. Who would have guessed that a Russian immigrant child would become one of America’s greatest song-writers?
James Rey Sanchez is the artist for the book and his work is a tremendous complement to the book. The art reminds me of the stylistic animation from the United Productions of America and Warner Brothers studios of the 1950’s. It is very eye-catching and children will have a lot to look at and not be bored while parents read the book out loud.
Looking for a good book? Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin and James Rey Sanchez is an all-around wonderful book and should be in every library in the country and on as many family bookshelves as possible.
Ever wonder why Irving Berlin was dreaming of a "White Christmas"? Here are my thoughts in The Dallas Morning News: