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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.

 

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Candlewick Biographies about Handel and Darwin

The two Candlewick Biographies below are reviewed by Dornel Cerro.

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Handel, Who Knew What He Liked by M. T. Anderson with illustrations by Kevin Hawkes, Candlewick Press, 2013.

Handel, Who Knew What He Liked, written by M. T. Anderson and illustrated by Kevin Hawkes,
(Candlewick Press 2013, $14.99, Ages 8-12)

One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin, written by Kathryn Lasky and illustrated by Matthew Trueman, (Candlewick Press 2014, $14.99, Ages 7-10)

Did you know that composer George Frederick Handel was once challenged to a duel? Or that scientist Charles Darwin’s childhood nickname was “Gas” because of the deliberate explosions he and his brother set off in their makeshift laboratory?

The two books reviewed here are part of the Candlewick Biographies series for children. Each examines “…a turning point or defining moment in the life of a famous person and how it led to significant contributions.”

Both men were born to fairly well-off families and had domineering (but well-intentioned) fathers who wanted their sons to pursue more affluent careers. Despite their fathers’ objections, both men realized success in their chosen professions.

When his father refused to pay for music lessons, Handel (‘who knew what he wanted”) smuggled a clavichord into the attic and taught himself how to play it. In England, he found the British didn’t like his Italian operas. So he wrote them in English. Throughout his life, Handel, when challenged by the naysayers, found a way to make everything work and still do “…what he wanted.”

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One Beetle Too Many: The Extraordinary Adventures of Charles Darwin by Kathryn Lasky with illustrations by Matthew Trueman, Candlewick Press, 2014.

Darwin’s father wanted him to be a doctor. All young Darwin wanted to do was explore the natural world and collect specimens. So he did not apply himself to what his father wanted him to study (medicine, and when that didn’t work out, theology), causing his father tp accuse his son of disgracing the family. A botany professor recommended Darwin for the position of naturalist aboard the HMS Beagle, and, despite his father’s objections, embarked on a five year journey that gave birth to his theory of evolution.

These short biographies are engagingly and humorously written by award-winning authors. Complex topics and terminology are clearly explained in accessible language. Colorful and vibrant illustrations convey each man’s world from the wealth and privilege of European aristocracy to the exoticness of the Galapagos Islands. Previously published as oversized biographies, the new smaller format is conducive to individual reading and research, although the lively language makes for a great read aloud. Added tools such as indexes and resources aid research and learning. Highly recommended for children 8-12 years old as wonderful introductions to biography and nonfiction.

Others in this series include biographies of Fred and Adele Astaire, Ella Fitzgerald, and John Muir and Phillis Wheatley.

Read Ronna Mandel’s review of A Voice of Her Own: The Story of Phillis Wheatley, Slave Poet.

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Marvin’s Magical Music

The Man Who Knew His Way Around a Musical Note

Ronna Mandel reviews a new picture book written by the late Emmy, Grammy, Oscar, Golden Globe and Tony-award winning composer Marvin Hamlisch.

Hamlisch, who passed away unexpectedly on August 6th, was a huge talent. I know because I had the great fortune to see him perform during his tenure as principal Pasadena Pops Orchestra conductor. Not only was he a consummate musician, but he was a highly entertaining figure with his self-deprecating humor and perfectly timed delivery.

When I received  Marvin Makes Music ($17.99, Dial, ages 6-8) written by Marvin Hamlisch and released posthumously earlier this month, I realized he left a most wonderful gift for young readers – his own story of how he felt and heard the music inside his head and all around. “In the park, other people watched the birds. Marvin listened to their songs.” If that isn’t the essence of Hamlisch, I don’t know what is?

Growing up in New York, Hamlisch was pushed by his musician father to practice his piano, though not in a mean way. Mr. Hamlisch Sr. came across as nurturing and proud. And while the young and extremely talented lad would have preferred playing more modern songs or his own compositions, his father urged him to train to the classic composers. Clearly Hamlisch’s parents knew they had a child prodigy in the family and it wasn’t long before his parents lined up an audition at Juilliard, the renowned Manhattan school for drama, dance and music.

The picture book, with fabulously expressive illustrations by Jim Madsen, centers around the day of the big audition and Hamlisch’s nervousness. His butterflies were compounded by an itchy suit his mother had purchased for the special occasion so he wore some comfy pajamas underneath!  That kind of personal recollection worked to make this story come alive for me. Plus knowing the fame that would follow for young Marvin (one of the youngest students to be accepted at Juilliard) also helped me want to read on.  A bonus for readers is the included CD recording of “The Music In My Mind,” an original song from Marvin Hamlisch and Rupert Holmes.

Parents, if you’ve got a child reluctant to practice piano, read them this story, play the CD and watch what happens!

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