WRITE ON, IRVING BERLIN!
Written by Leslie Kimmelman
Illustrated by David C. Gardner
(Sleeping Bear Press; $16.99, Ages 6-9)
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 Gun, Easter Parade and many others.
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.”
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!
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.
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.