I never imagined that my IRVING BERLIN, THE IMMIGRANT BOY WHO MADE AMERICA SING would be one of THREE Irving Berlin books that came out in 2018. But sometime after I could see my cover, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez, emerge on Amazon, boom! Leslie Kimmelman’s WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN! popped up with illustrations by David C. Gardner, followed by Adah Nuchi’s GOD BLESS AMERICA, THE STORY OF AN IMMIGRANT NAMED IRVING BERLIN, illustrated by Rob Polivka. Whoops! Was I in trouble?
I worried: Would there be enough room for three books about Irving Berlin? Slowly, the irony of my concerns began to dawn on me. If there’s one thing all three books have in common it’s the message to welcome newcomers. After all, wasn’t Berlin, a child refugee, hoping that this new country his family was going to, America, would have room for them?
When I read Adah’s and Leslie’s books, not only did I realize that there was plenty of room for each book, each with its own unique perspective and pleasures, but the books resulted in me making two new friends: Adah and Leslie. Who knows if we would have met if not for this unexpected Berlin triple header?
As we head into the July 4 celebration of America, it’s a great time to think about what it means to be American.
All three books address the immigrant experience. Adah’s book, God Bless America, teems with crowds and noise, both in the story and in Polivka’s illustrations. “The Bowery was bustling!” the book begins and every page is packed with with people and with story. Adah’s book and Leslie’s book, Write On, Irving Berlin! included another element, too — the prejudice immigrants faced. From Adah’s God Bless America: “And while some people didn’t like that the voice of America belonged to an immigrant and a Jew, most people felt that a refugee was the jut the right person to celebrate the hope America held.”
From Leslie’s Write On, Irving Berlin! on Irving writing the song “God Bless America”: “Some people were angry that someone Jewish, who hadn’t even been born in America, had written it.”
Another detail Leslie has in her story, which Adah has it in her back matter and I have it in my free, downloadable Teacher Guide, is Irving’s insistence that black and white actors be integrated in his show and live, eat and travel together, years before any other units in the U.S. Armed Forces had such a policy. Irving did his best to make sure that the America had welcomed him was inclusive of everyone of all races and all religions. That, for him, was what America was all about.
But while Leslie’s book addresses the immigrant experience, the most prominent theme in her book is persistence. She focuses on the tremendous obstacles Irving faced through his life, from the pogroms that drove his family from Russia, to his struggles in school, where he was criticized for daydreaming and singing to himself. She includes the death of his father, the death of his first wife and how, throughout everything life threw at him, he “wrote and wrote and wrote and wrote.” More than anything, her story is about following a dream and she takes us to the very end of Irving’s life when he dies at 101.
My book, Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, saved a lot of details about Irving’s marriages and professional successes for the back matter, as I focused in on what fascinated me most: how Irving, as an immigrant, took what was most precious to him — the shema prayer that he learned from his father, the cantor — and melded notes with the sounds of America to create a new sound and a new song, “God Bless America” to honor his new home.
For me, this is what immigrants do over and over again — bring the gifts of their heart to America and mix it with what they find to create something wonderful that never existed before and wouldn’t exist if not for these immigrants. Irving was a keen businessman. He made a fortune from many songs, including “White Christmas,” the best-selling Christmas song of all time. The fact that he never took a penny for “God Bless America” and donated all the royalties, worth millions of dollars to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America, underscored that this was a song from his soul — a prayer for his country, not unlike the prayers that his father sang in synagogue. In the words of my book:
“It was his thank you to the country that opened its arms to countless people from all over the world, including a homeless boy who came to America with nothing but music in his heart.”
Three authors, three illustrators, three different approaches. In May, Maria Marshall interviewed all three of us for her The Picture Book Buzz blog. Her interview reveals, in our own words, our writing journeys, what fascinated ourselves about Irving Berlin why we made the choices we did, the challenges we faced and the joy we found in digging deep into Irving’s incredible life and legacy.
What I have confidence in saying is that none of us expected that there would be so much company and that we would enjoy the company on this journey. It is a beautiful thing to think about as we celebrate America’s beauty. Because one of the greatest gifts America can give is the welcome it provides the stranger, the message that there is not only room for everyone, but room for everyone’s gifts and ideas and that there is something in the American air that transforms those gifts and ideas into something wonderful and new.
Happy birthday, America. Thank you for the gift of Irving Berlin and for all our immigrants. Thank you for the gift of the new friends we three have made by writing about him.