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.

 

 

 

Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of The Emmett Till Case by Chris Crowe

GETTING AWAY WITH MURDER:
The True Story of The Emmett Till Case
Written by Chris Crowe
(Speak/Dial BYR; $10.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

cover image from Getting Away With Murder by Chris Crowe

 

Author Chris Crowe first wrote Getting Away With Murder: The True Story of The Emmett Till Case, a riveting and award-winning nonfiction book, back in 2003. Today I’m reviewing a revised edition that “has been updated to reflect the newest information about Emmett’s life and untimely death …” which should be read by every teen to understand the Jim Crow era South and “the hate crime that helped spark the civil rights movement.” 

In the L.A. Times on Friday, July 13, I read that the Emmett Till case has once again been reopened based upon new information that has come to the attention of authorities. I needed to know more. Over the years I only learned snippets about the case because, like a majority of students to this day, I was never taught the Till case in school. Now that I’ve read Crowe’s engaging, well-crafted and meticulously researched book, I know about the grave miscarriage of justice that occurred in Mississippi in 1955. In an intro, eight chapters, a detailed time line plus back matter, Crowe examines events leading up to the brazen and brutal murder of 14-year-old African American, Emmett Till, the subsequent trial and later developments that culminated in the exhumation of Till’s body. Crowe’s also tied in the Black Lives Matter movement that grew out of the senseless Trayvon Martin killing. For those yet to read Getting Away With Murder, Crowe puts all the events that take place into historical context by educating us about current events of the time period. For example, the heinous, racist crime against Till took place three months prior to Rosa Parks’ historic bus activism and was an important catalyst in the civil rights movement. Covering the case should be part of every school’s curriculum especially given that innocent black lives continue to be taken 63 years on.

Emmett Till and his mother lived in Chicago, but when his Uncle Mose Wright, a sharecropper from the Mississippi Delta region, invited him for a visit, he jumped at the opportunity to spend time with his family. It was the summer following eighth grade and fun-loving Emmett was feeling good. His mother, on the other hand, felt nervous. Mrs. Mamie Till Bradley knew that, while she and her son lived in a segregated Chicago neighborhood, theirs was a relatively racial violence free existence. Emmett didn’t have to deal with the harsh realities and repercussions of the Deep South Jim Crow era laws. But Mamie was from Mississippi. She worried Emmett wouldn’t take the law or her advice seriously and sadly she mother was right. He found her cautions silly.

Once with his southern family, Emmett was boastful about his life in Chicago, about how he interacted with and claimed to date white women. Not long after his arrival, in the nearby town of Money, Till was egged on by his cousins. He went into Bryant’s Grocery & Meat Market, a small white-owned store belonging to Roy and Carolyn, to chat up the woman. Bryant was out of town on a delivery and his wife was alone in the store. Things turned bad quickly when Emmett, who didn’t “appreciate the seriousness of this Southern taboo …” entered Bryan’t market, asked for some candy and then made a pass at Carolyn. According to her statement, “… when she held out her hand for his money, … he grabbed it, pulled her toward him, and said, ‘How about a date, baby?'” Some other interaction occurred as well. This was followed by a wolf whistle after Emmett had been pulled from the store by his friends.

When nothing happened for several nights everyone thought Emmett was in the clear. As we know, such was not the case. When Bryant returned from his trip, he and his half-brother, J. W. “Big” Milam, kidnappped Emmett in the middle of the night. The men felt retaliation was required to defend Bryant’s wife’s honor and teach the boy a lesson so they tortured him. When he was defiant, they killed him. One of five lawyers, J. J. Breland, who eventually took on the defendant’s case said they all felt intense pressure to “let the North know that we are not going to put up with Northern negroes ‘stepping over the line.'” As the title implies, the men were acquitted. While in their minds justice prevailed, it clearly had not. The case won national coverage due to multiple reasons, but one of the most crucial ones was Mamie Till Bradley’s decision to have an open casket at Emmett’s funeral so the world could see just what had been done to her son.

Getting Away With Murder explains how much of what happened that summer was driven by racism, fear and anger. Bryant and his fellow Southerners were unhappy about the recent Brown v. Board of Education decision mandating desegregation in schools. The majority of the population in the segregated South did not want their way of life to change, especially if dictated by Northerners. But it was truly the beginning of the end for them.

There were many surprises in the book for me but I don’t want to share them all here. While their significance is of the utmost importance, I think they have to be read first hand to appreciate the implications and feel the outrage. What’s sad about this pivotal event in our country’s history is that while a lot has changed, a lot has unfortunately remained the same in regards to racism. Last night I described the Emmett Till case to my husband who had never heard of it. My 17-year-old son had. My son said he found out more details from me than what he had originally learned. My husband thanked me. We must keep sharing the story. I recommend picking up a copy of Chris Crowe’s book for your teens. They will thank you .

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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Great Summer Reading! Five Novelty Book Faves For Toddlers & Preschoolers

A ROUNDUP OF UNIQUE BOOKS
FOR TODDLERS & PRESCHOOLERS

 

 

I Thought I Saw a Dinosaur! cover illustrationI Thought I Saw A Dinosaur!
Written and illustrated by Lydia Nichols
(Templar Books; $7.99, Ages 0-3)

I Thought I Saw A Dinosaur! by Lydia Nichols is part of the “I Thought I Saw A” series—the other title right now being I Thought I Saw A Lion!  This compact square-shaped, 10-page board book includes a slide-and-seek feature that encourages manually dexterity. Just move the easy-to-spot loop (it looks like a ring-shaped life preserver) in every spread to the opposite end of the cut-away area and presto, behold the dino! It could be anywhere in the house. Maybe behind the sofa or maybe in the shower (the shower curtain is my favorite slider). One thing is for sure, this chartreuse green dino is adorable and friendly so youngsters will be thrilled to find it. Nichols’s artwork has a cool retro feel, but most of all it’s warm and welcoming and makes for an entertaining game of slide-and-seek at home or on the road.

 

Cover art from Take a Look: More Fun Together! by Liesbet Slegers Take a Look: More Fun Together!
Written and illustrated by Liesbet Slegers
(Clavis Books; $12.95, Ages 18 months and up)

What’s more fun than playing alone? Playing with a friend! In fact, everything’s more fun together and toddlers will agree. First they’ll see bear resting, but after they slide apart the sturdy board book pages, they’ll see bear’s pal revealed. Is bunny crawling into her empty burrow? Nope her little ones await her! Use this 12-page book to discuss friendship, types of animals then come up with your own take on the colorful cast of characters including a cat, an elephant, a fish and some kids. Each slide-and-see page of Take a Look. More Fun Together!, a delightful interactive board book, holds a sweet surprise. An adorable year round read.

 

book cover die_cut art from TouchThinkLearn: Wiggles

TouchThinkLearn: WIggles
by Claire Zucchelli-Romer
(Handprint Books/Chronicle Kids; $17.99, Ages 2-4)

Let one, five or ten fingers linger on every page to explore the tactile fun that is TouchThinkLearn: Wiggles. The “fluorescent die-cut dots and playful, grooved paths” will entertain and engage children as they learn about shapes, color and movement in a totally unique way. According to Handprint Books, “The premise is simple: Hear an instruction, repeat its words, and playfully trace out its action.” Children won’t be able to resist. I couldn’t either, from my very first touch of the book’s spine and cover. The spirals inside pulled me in, but maybe it will be the the squiggles, dots or zigzags for your toddlers and preschoolers. Whatever captures their interest, they’re sure to find new ways to interact with this 26-page, vibrantly colored board book. Its innovative design and exuberant language promises to spark sensory curiosity in little learners. Find half a dozen other books in the terrific TouchThinkLearn series including Little Critters, Fly and ABC.

 

Sam's Hamburger cover artworkSam’s Hamburger
Written and illustrated by David Pelham
(Candlewick Press; $12.99, Ages 3-7)

Samantha’s sad that her burger’s been stolen, “And that’s the second one this week!” she cries to her brother who has a plan—concoct something that resembles a burger only fill it with fake food designed to hide creepy crawlies. What a wonderfully distasteful way to get back at the thief! That’ll certainly give the culprit something to chew on. This convincing, cleverly designed three-dimensional, lift-the-flap book is not for those who easily get queasy. Sam’s Hamburger is a satisfying sequel to the best-selling Sam’s Sandwich, first published in 1990. It will introduce a new generation of young readers to this bright, bold, over-the-top, but cooked to perfection recipe for sweet (or sour) revenge.

 

cover illustration from We're Going on a Bear Hunt: Changing Picture Book

We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: Changing Picture Book
Written by Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Helen Oxenbury
(Candlewick Press; $18.99, Ages 3-7)

The award-winning classic from 1989 has had many iterations, but this latest, We’re Going on a Bear Hunt: Changing Picture Book, is one I think will please even Bear Hunt purists because it’s just so much fun. There are seven transforming pages including the cover in this 20-page board book. Each one brings movement and excitement to the spread where the changing pictures have been designed. The pull-down tabs switch from illustration only to illustration and the beloved sounds we all love repeating and in many cases have memorized: Swishy swashy! Splash splosh! Squelch squerch! Stumble trip! Hoo woo! and the ultimate, IT’S A BEAR! So when thinking of a baby shower gift, add this version to your list and help new parents have a beautiful day or plan on having one yourself!

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Check out another board book roundup here.

 

 

 

 

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World Make Way – Art Inspired Poetry Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins

WORLD MAKE WAY:
New Poems Inspired by Art
from The Metropolitan Museum of Art
Edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins
(Abrams BYR; $16.99, Ages 5-9)

 

World Make Way cover image of Cat Watching a Spider by Ōide Tōkō

 

A curious, crouching cat on the book’s cover immediately drew me into World Make Way: New Poems Inspired by Art from The Metropolitan Museum of Art edited by Lee Bennett Hopkins. Eighteen thoughtful and evocative poems and the accompanying works of art that prompted their creation kept me turning the pages. This beautiful collection is everything a poetry anthology for children should be: diverse, original and, as the title suggests, inspiring. In the book’s back matter I learned that Lee Bennett Hopkins, the editor of World Make Way, holds the Guinness Book of World Records citation for compiling the most anthologies for children, making him more than well-suited to spearhead this satisfying project in conjunction with the Met.

I appreciate the breadth of art that was selected and the variety of poems that were commissioned for World Make Way. There is something that will appeal to every reader who dives in, whether they like short, simple poems or those more complex and layered. There are serious poems and those that have fun with the reader like Marilyn Singer’s poem, Paint Me, the first in the book. In it the teen subject of Gustav Klimt’s portrait, Mäda Primavesi, bids the artist to make haste and finish up the painting because she’s such a busy person, hence the book’s title World Make Way, a line she utters in desperation! She has places to go. People to see. After all, if her family can afford to have Klimt paint her, she’s likely a socialite. Ultimately the book will show children how to look at art with fresh eyes and take from it something unique to them. Art evokes something different in each person who beholds it and the poems included perfectly capture that.

One particular poem that stayed with me was Young Ashoka Sundari by Amy Ludwig Vanderwater inspired by Shiva and Parvati Playing Chaupar: Folio from a Rasamanjari Series, 1694-95 by Devidasa of Nurpur. Her poem introduces readers to Ashoka who secretly observes her parents: I stand behind this neem tree / to watch my parents play / a game of chaupar / on a tiger rug / beneath bright mango sky. Offering a child’s perspective in her poem, Vanderwater helped me to have a lightbulb moment with the artwork. It’s not always about what we see when observing art, it’s also about what or who the artist left out, or where the scene is set. What a wonderful conversation starter! What does this art say to you? What do you think is happening here now? How does this picture make you feel? What might happen now that the child has witnessed this scene?

In my multiple readings I found myself wondering what I’d write about a certain piece of art such as Henri Rousseau’s The Repast of the Lion, but if I ever see the painting again, I’ll forever associate J. Patrick Lewis’s poem with it. Now that he’s fed and jaguar-full— / Finally his appetite is dull— And of Joan Bransfield Graham’s Great Indian Fruit Bat, a poem about a painting of the same name attributed to Bhawani Das or a follower, 1777-82  I marveled at her internal rhyme and alliteration. As my wings whisk me, swooping through / this black velvet night, who will admire / my elegant attire, the intricacy …  A bat’s point of view, fantastic!

Other featured poets are: Alma Flor Ada, Cynthia S. Cotten, Rebecca Kai Dotlich, Julie Fogliano, Charles Ghigna, Lee Bennett Hopkins, Irene Latham, Elaine Magliaro, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, Marilyn Nelson, Naomi Shihab Nye, Ann Whitford Paul, Carole Boston Weatherford and Janet Wong. Other featured artists are: Rosa Bonheur, Fernando Botero, Mary Cassatt, Liberale Da Verona, Leonardo Da Vinci, Han Gan, Martin Johnson Heade, Frank Henderson, Utagawa Hiroshige, Winslow Homer, Kerry James Marshall, José Guadalupe Posada and Ōide Tōkō.

While I can definitely see educators enjoying the book for its varying forms of poetry and the individual interpretations of the poets to accompany the magnificent works of art, I can also easily see a parent sharing the book before any museum visit or simply as a way to spark a child’s imagination. It certainly sparked mine.

  • Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

Read a review of another poetry collection here.

 

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