Write On, Irving Berlin! by Leslie Kimmelman

 

WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN!
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by David C. Gardner
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)

 

book cover image from Write On, Irving Berlin! by Leslie Kimmelman

 

This quote says it all – 

“Irving Berlin has no place in American music – he is American music.”

— Jerome Kern

It’s been almost 30 years since we lost the brilliant musical talent, Irving Berlin, but his music lives on. In fact, the great news is that we can frequently hear some of his most famous songs throughout the year at sporting events, at Christmastime and in musical revivals across the country. Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman and illustrated by David C. Gardner is billed as a lyrical story of an immigrant and the composition of “God Bless America.” This picture book biography provided the interesting back story of the man behind so many hits including “Alexander’s Ragtime Band”, “Putting On The Ritz”, “White Christmas”, “Oh! How I Hate to Get Up in the Morning” as well as all the wonderful songs from Annie Get Your GunEaster Parade and many others.

 

interior artwork of Israel Isidore Baline arriving in N.Y. from Write On, Irving Berlin!

Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

When it became too unsafe to remain in Russia for Jews, five-year-old Israel Isidore Baline and his family traveled by ship to America in 1893 to begin a new life. Thousands of immigrants arrived at Ellis Island in New York with barely anything but memories of their homeland. But at least they were safe and free. In school, Israel went by the name of of Izzy but found it difficult to focus on learning. Music filled his head. That was no surprise. In Russia his father had been a cantor, “standing side by side with rabbis, singing and filing synagogues with beautiful music.”  Sadly, Izzy’s father passed away when the boy was just thirteen. He left school and his family so as not to be an added burden and struck out on his own. What did he do? He sang wherever he could get a paying job. He also wrote song lyrics although he couldn’t read or write music! He actually hummed his tunes and had someone else write down what he created. Pretty impressive I’d say. By this time Izzy was calling himself Irving Berlin and had sold his first song for 37 cents. He found a job at a music publisher and, since ragtime music was all the rage, he wrote Alexander’s Ragtime Band which became “a smash.”

 

interior artwork from Write On, Irving Berlin! pg 14 spread ragtime

Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Soon Irving Berlin married but not long after the wedding, his wife Dorothy became ill and died. He turned to his music to get him through his grief, still grateful for all that his new country had given him. During WWI Berlin was drafted into the army where he wrote songs to lift the spirits of his fellow soldiers. After that he found love again with Ellin and wrote the song “Always” for her. One hit followed another and Berlin’s popularity grew. He seemed to live and breathe music and wrote songs at any time of the day or night and in any place, including the bathtub!

 

interior artwork p 21_22 from Write On, Irving Berlin! bathtub scene

Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

It probably took little time to write one of his all time greats, “God Bless America”, a song that celebrates its 100th or 80th anniversary this year depending on whether you count when he first composed it or when he released it decades later. I had no idea Berlin donated all the proceeds from the song to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America or that people weren’t happy that a Jewish man, an immigrant, had written the song. What stunned me was those same folks could again not embrace his other huge hit, “White Christmas” for the same reason. Despite that, Berlin is said to have told a friend he thought it was the best song anybody had ever written. There is more to learn about this amazingly talented man such as how he traveled to war zones during WWII to help entertain the troops and how his fount of song ideas seemed ever flowing. Kimmelman’s included an author’s note in the back matter where I learned Berlin not only helped found the American Society of Composers, Authors and Publishers (ASCAP) but in his lifetime he received not only the Medal of Merit from President Truman but the Congressional Medal of Honor from President Eisenhower as well.

 

Nothing stopped Irving from writing int artwork from Write On, Irving Berlin!

Interior spread from Write On, Irving Berlin! written by Leslie Kimmelman with illustrations by David C. Gardner, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Kimmelman’s shared just the right amount of information with her prose although there is so much material about Berlin to choose from given his long career.  I liked how, since this is an anniversary year for “God Bless America”, she included that very line at various points throughout the book. Looking at Gardner’s beautiful historical imagery with its water color quality, readers will get a terrific sense of time, place and mood. Prepare to be transported back by both Kimmelman’s words and Gardner’s illustrations to a time when Tin Pan Alley was turning out the hits and Irving Berlin was at the top of his game. I recommend reading the book while playing a selection of some of his songs which can be found here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another picture book biography here.

 

Never Say Never! Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story

NATURE’S FRIEND:
THE GWEN FROSTIC STORY
Written by Lindsey McDivitt
Illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)

 

cover art from Nature's Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivitt

 

One of the best parts about reviewing children’s books is learning about someone or something new. That’s exactly what happened after reading Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story by Lindsey McDivitt with illustrations by Eileen Ryan Ewen. You may have noticed that there aren’t a lot of traditionally published picture books about people with disabilities, but there are more now than there used to be and that’s a good thing. Authors like McDivitt are making a difference by writing about diverse individuals and topics which I truly appreciate and why I jumped at the chance to review Nature’s Friend.

This inspiring debut picture book biography introduces children to the art and writing of Gwen Frostic, someone about whom, as I mentioned above, I knew nothing prior to reading the book. And now I’m eager to see her art in person and you will be, too. Born in Michigan in 1906, Frostic contracted an illness as an infant that left her physically disabled. But with the positive influence of her mother, Gwen never avoided doing all the things that her brothers and sisters did. “I never knew I couldn’t do something,” is the overarching message of Nature’s Friend, a quote in McDivitt’s book that captures the essence of who Gwen was—a bright, creative and resourceful woman who never let perceived obstacles hold her back. She clearly was ahead of her time.

 

Int illustration by Eileen Ryan Ewen from Nature's Friend by Lindsey McDivitt

Interior artwork from Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story written by Lindsey McDivitt and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Gwen’s mother, a former teacher, could have taught her daughter at home because in the early 20th century it was more common for disabled children to stay at home. Instead, Mrs. Frostic “sent Gwen to school and pushed her to learn.” While the bullying might have painful, the young girl chose to focus on her academics and was an adept student. In fact, it was also due to her mother’s encouragement and guidance that Gwen’s weak hands grew stronger as her mother had her practice sketching. Gwen, who had embraced nature at an early age, would find later in life that this experience greatly influenced her career path.

 

int art by Eileen Ryan Ewen from Nature's Friend by Lindsey McDivitt

Interior artwork from Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story written by Lindsey McDivitt and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

At age 12, Gwen’s family moved to Detroit. It was there in high school that she learned mechanical drawing and other skills not typically part of a girl’s curriculum. Someone wrote in her yearbook, “Her brush, her pencil and her pen will make this world a better place!” But pursuing a career in art wasn’t necessarily going to provide for her. The tides turned in her favor when wealthy and influential people began purchasing her designs. What joy and satisfaction it must have been for Frostic when her art was chosen to be exhibited at the 1939 New York World’s Fair! Soon though her grand plans were put on hold due to WWII. She went to work at the Ford Motor Company to help the war effort by designing “tools for building the airplanes.”

In addition to Gwen’s airplane construction work, at home she remained drawn to art, eventually purchasing a printing press and starting her own business. Frostic called it Presscraft Papers Stationary Company and based it first in Frankfort, Michigan and then on the Betsie River to be closer to nature. The back matter states that Frostic created greeting cards and books that “celebrated Michigan plans and wildlife.” She was awarded countless honors in her lifetime and worked in her shop well into her 90s.

 

int art by Eileen Ryan Ewen from Nature's Friend by Lindsey McDivitt

Interior artwork from Nature’s Friend: The Gwen Frostic Story written by Lindsey McDivitt and illustrated by Eileen Ryan Ewen, Sleeping Bear Press ©2018.

 

Ewen’s serene artwork conveys Frostic’s love of nature on every page. I also felt the movement and emotion as Gwen clenched her sketching pencil, smelled the fresh Michigan air in the beautifully rendered outdoor scenes and watched the changing fashions go by as Gwen matured. The illustrations, coupled with McDivitt’s honest and uplifting prose that applauds determination and individuality, promises hope and invites creativity (there’s a craft included at the end), make this a wonderful and worthwhile read for not only kids, but for adults too who may be unfamiliar with Frostic.

Everything about Gwen Frostic was unique, from her art to her attitude. Rather than let society define what she could and couldn’t do as a woman and as a person with disabilities, she wrote her own rules and lived happily and successfully by them. Considering the era she lived in, it’s especially encouraging to read about female trailblazers like Gwen Frostic who forged ahead with their talents allowing their heart to guide them.

“As long as there are trees in tiny seeds … there will be miracles on earth.” – Gwen Frostic, A Walk With Me

Learn more about Gwen’s studio here.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read another picture book biography here.

 

 

 

Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles by Patricia Valdez

JOAN PROCTER, DRAGON DOCTOR
Written by Patricia Valdez,
Illustrated by Felicita Sala
(Alfred A. Knopf BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Cover illustration from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor

 

Lovely language and engaging illustrations energize Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor: The Woman Who Loved Reptiles, an amazing picture book biography about a trailblazing scientist from debut author Patricia Valdez and illustrator Felicita Sala.

 

Interior illustration of young Joan from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor

Interior spread from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

Fascinated by reptiles from an early age, Joan Procter followed her childhood passion for slithery, scaly, unusual animals to an internationally renowned career at London’s Zoo and the Natural History Museum. Valdez introduces us to young, curious Joan, holding tea parties with reptiles while her peers preferred dolls. As Joan grew, her interest did not wane, so at 16 years old she received a pet crocodile as a birthday gift!

 

Interior illustration spread from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor

Interior spread from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

In due time, Joan chatted up the director of Natural History museum about his work with reptiles. She began working there, surveying the museum’s vast collections, publishing research papers, and creating detailed, realistic models and drawings for the reptile exhibits. Given her enthusiasm, experience and extensive knowledge, Joan eventually became the Curator, an unusual role for a female scientist at the time.

When invited to re-design the London Zoo Reptile House, Joan fell in love with a new and exotic creature, the Komodo dragon. This so-called fierce, man-eating lizard was “rumored to be…Thirty feet long! Faster than a motorcar! Stronger than an ox!” Joan, undeterred, could not wait to study the dragons first-hand. Her deep connection with one Komodo called Sumbawa led to some of the most stunning and innovative work of her career.

 

Interior illustration of tea party from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor

Interior artwork from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

Valdez keeps the paces of this fascinating story lively by introducing wonderful vocabulary woven carefully and completely within a child-friendly framework and perspective. She highlights her heroine’s passion and determination in an understated yet direct manner, giving Joan relevance and timeliness that transcend her time period. Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor is an essential addition for collections on women in STEM fields, with the broad appeal of reptiles and science for many young readers boosts this title to the top.

Salas illustrates dramatically, choosing with vibrant, rich colors for the settings, the tropical plants, and the starring-role reptiles. Joan is elegant yet serious, portrayed close to and interacting with her creatures, focused on them with great intensity, delight and passion. The reptiles themselves are marvelously textured and stylized, creeping, curving and twisting with dignified realism. Throughout the story, Salas provides tantalizing glimpses of early 20th century London through architecture and fashions of the era.

 

Interior illustration from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor

Interior artwork from Joan Procter, Dragon Doctor by Patricia Valdez with illustrations by Felicita Sala, Knopf BYR ©2018.

 

Valdez includes additional biographical information on Procter as well as on Komodo Dragons. A bibliography with primary and secondary sources is a helpful resource for young readers who wish to explore more. Don’t miss the opportunity to learn about this impressive scientist, her beloved ‘dragons’ and her trailblazing career in a book that is as beautiful and brilliant as it is important.

 

Where obtained: I reviewed an advanced reader copy from the publisher and received no other compensation. The opinions expressed here are my own.

 

ABOUT JOAN PROCTER, DRAGON DOCTOR

For fans of Ada Twist: Scientist comes a fascinating picture book biography of a pioneering female scientist–who loved reptiles!

Back in the days of long skirts and afternoon teas, young Joan Procter entertained the most unusual party guests: slithery and scaly ones, who turned over teacups and crawled past the crumpets…. While other girls played with dolls, Joan preferred the company of reptiles. She carried her favorite lizard with her everywhere–she even brought a crocodile to school!

When Joan grew older, she became the Curator of Reptiles at the British Museum. She went on to design the Reptile House at the London Zoo, including a home for the rumored-to-be-vicious Komodo dragons. There, just like when she was a little girl, Joan hosted children’s tea parties–with her Komodo dragon as the guest of honor.

With a lively text and vibrant illustrations, scientist and writer Patricia Valdez and illustrator Felicita Sala bring to life Joan Procter’s inspiring story of passion and determination.

Starred Reviews: Booklist, Publishers Weekly, School Library Journal

 

 

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Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin

MUDDY: THE STORY OF BLUES LEGEND MUDDY WATERS
Written by Michael Mahin
Illustrated by Evan Turk
(Atheneum BYR; $17.99, Ages 4-8)

Starred Review – Booklist

 

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters book cover

 

Don’t miss the biography of the man and his music in Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters.

The story of blues legend Muddy Waters is told in prose which reads like one of his songs, filled with both sweetness and longing. Author Michael Mahin does a fine job of recreating for a young reader the life of Muddy Waters from his childhood days to one of the high points of his career, the creation of his first album.

All along the way through the book, beside those sweet and longing words of the author, are Evan Turk’s amazing illustrations that take your breath away. They look like the blues! They look like Muddy Water’s story and some of his soul. Strong lines paint the bold story of the legend, and color reaches out to convey the emotion that Muddy was going through at different times in his life. Truly these are some of the most unique illustrations to appear in a picture book. The people in Muddy’s life reach high in church, bow low over a harmonica, every movement is full of energy. Muddy’s grandmother appears as a larger than life character. She takes up so much room in one memorable two-page spread that one cannot escape the dominant presence she must have had in Muddy’s life. There is some kind of motion everywhere, in the playing of music, in the form of Muddy’s grandmother as she hangs her laundry while dancing to Muddy’s music, and in the movement of Muddy himself as he plays and sings.

 

Int art from Muddy by Michael Mahin with art by Evan Turk

Interior spread from Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters by Michael Mahin with illustrations by Evan Turk, Atheneum BYR ©2017.

 

The often repeated words, “But Muddy was never good at doing what he was told.” tell the story of a man who would not be dictated to by any boss but himself, and who successfully turned that persistence into a sound that the music world had never heard before, a precursor to rock and roll.  This is a story that shows a child that sometimes staying true to yourself is one of the hardest battles, but ultimately one of the best. Muddy never gave up on his music the way he heard it, never listening to naysayers. All of us have something like that call in our lives. Muddy teaches us through his experiences to listen to that call, be true to it and to never stop believing that one day it will enable each of us to add a new sound to the world. One passage accompanied by a striking depiction of Muddy singing reads like music:

He called up the sticky heat of a summer

night, the power of love, and the need

for connection in a world that was

so good at pulling people apart.

Muddy: The Story of Blues Legend Muddy Waters is an incredibly powerful picture book in every respect and is highly recommended. At the bookstore where I work, this is a staff favorite because we all agree that it is one of the most extraordinary picture books we have seen this year. Muddy is a wonderful introduction to the life of a legend as well as an inspirational and evocative experience of art so well matched to the man and his blues that you can almost hear the music playing.

This hardcover picture book will be available September 5, 2017 but can be pre-ordered now.

  • Reviewed by Hilary Taber

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Ordinary People Change The World: I am George Washington by Brad Meltzer

ORDINARY PEOPLE CHANGE THE WORLD:
I AM GEORGE WASHINGTON
Written by Brad Meltzer
Illustrated by Christopher Eliopoulos
(Dial BYR; $12.99, Ages 5-8)

 

cover image of I am George Washington by Brad Meltzer

 

For Presidents’ Day 2017, let’s take a look at Brad Meltzer’s I am George Washington, another terrific biography in the popular and entertaining Ordinary People Change The World series. These books serve as a great introduction to some of the world’s greatest heroes and historical figures while emphasizing that individuals are not born into greatness but work hard to achieve it, earning the public’s trust, respect and admiration along the way. Each person depicted in the series has demonstrated proven leadership skills or unique knowledge making them worthy of inclusion.

The fourth of nine children, George Washington had great people skills, something needed in a large family, and eventually, to run a nascent country. Back when Washington was growing up, there was no U.S.A. yet, only colonies ruled by Great Britain. Readers will learn how Washington’s older brother Lawrence, fourteen years his senior, had a positive impact on his younger brother. In fact, a soldier himself, Lawrence influenced Washington’s decision to serve in the military. When his father died, Washington’s family could no longer “afford proper schooling so my brothers had to teach me at home.” At sixteen, Washington worked as a surveyor in the Shenandoah Valley with a wealthy family called the Fairfaxes. They treated him kindly and exposed him to the finer things in life. Yet, despite the opportunity to hobnob with the rich, Washington never forgot his roots and all the people less privileged than the Fairfaxes. He later fulfilled his childhood dream by joining the military, showing bravery and leadership in battle and being made “commander of all Virginia’s fighting forces.” George Washington also ran for office, and though he lost at his first attempt, he won all future elections.

 

George Washington Timeline from Ordinary People Change the World

Interior spread of George Washington Timeline from Ordinary People Change the World: I am George Washington by Brad Meltzer with illustrations by Christopher Eliopoulos, Dial Books ©2016.

 

When the American Revolution began in protest against high taxes imposed by Britain, “Our thirteen colonies decided we would fight together against King George III.” Washington was chosen to lead the battle. Cleverness, determination and unparalleled leadership helped the less experienced military of the colonies defeat the mighty British led, of course, by General George Washington. And the rest, of course is history, with Washington being selected as the first president of the United States of America.

What I love about Meltzer’s writing and Eliopoulos’ artwork is that they make learning about these important people so accessible, interesting and fun. Who doesn’t love seeing a miniature George Washington on every page or having him narrate his life’s story? Picking out the most relevant aspects of any individual’s life is never easy and to condense them into a picture book biography for elementary school aged kids and still be meaningful takes a lot of experience, something best-selling author Meltzer has lots of! The choice of Eliopoulos as illustrator is just icing on the cake and I cannot imagine this series with any other style artwork. And did I notice author Meltzer drawn into one spread near the end? See for yourself and let me know.

“Leadership doesn’t come from charisma or personality.
It comes from courage:
The courage to do what’s right.
The courage to serve others.
The courage to go first.”

And George Washington, the father of our country, had enough courage for an entire nation and we celebrate him today.

Ordinary People Change the World website
Brad Meltzer website
Christopher Eliopoulos website

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel
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