“Can we talk?” If little ones don’t recognize this signature question from the late comedian Joan Rivers, perhaps parents or grandparents reading the board book to them will. Rivers is just one of the more than three dozen famous Jews presented in this board book that I wish I’d written. Told in rhyme, My First Book of Famous Jews written by Julie Merberg and illustrated by Julie Wilsonis a fabulous introduction to the talented individuals who have made lasting and significant contributions to science, literature, music, film, politics, and the judiciary—even activism, an important inclusion.
It’s never too soon to start sharing the broad impact Jewish people have made in every field. This book sings the praises of everyone from Anne Frank to Helen Frankenthaler, from Steven Spielberg to Gloria Steinem in their respective categories. Wilson’s vibrant art throughout this 24-page book brings members of the tribe alive, in particular Barbra Streisand, Bob Dylan, Bella Abzug, and Sacha Baron Cohen.
Descriptions of these iconic figures are brief. “EMMA GOLDMAN rallied to help workers unite./ “BERNIE SANDERS said “’Health care is a human right.’” But just enough to make a great introduction and prompt further reading as kids get older.
A helpful page of back matter expands on some of the people mentioned. This board book offers a great jumping-off point for a conversation about Jewish identity and the influence and importance of these famous Jews with children during year-round and especially during Jewish American Heritage Month.
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.
Read what guest reviewer Debbie Glade thinks of a new biography for kids on Benjamin Franklin.
I had been thinking about reading a biography of Ben Franklin, when the opportunity came up for me to review Benjamin Franklin, American Genius: His Life and Ideas with 21 Activities.(Chicago Review Press, $16.95, ages 9 – 12). Naturally I jumped at the chance. Ever since I started to read the book, I have noticed just how often Franklin’s name has come up on television, in movies, in newspaper and magazine articles, in other books and in every day conversations. As a nation, we owe a great deal to Franklin, and award-winning writer, Brandon Marie Miller explains why in this book.
No one could dispute the fact that Benjamin Franklin was one of the most ingenious Americans of all time. A lover of books and learning, Franklin educated himself and was in so many ways, ahead of his time. He was a printer, a publisher, a writer, a scientist, a businessman, a politician, an educator and so much more. His combination of intelligence, freethinking and persistence changed our nation and the world.
Readers will learn about Franklin from birth to death. They will get a glimpse into his writings and printing expertise. They will discover in detail the extensive electrical science experiments Franklin completed and how Franklin continued to pursue scientific truths in spite of being criticized by other scientists for his findings. (Check out page 43 for an excellent, simple explanation of the Basics of Electricity.) They will learn how he founded the first library and what is now the University of Pennsylvania. Readers will also come to know how Franklin got involved in politics, signed the Declaration of Independence and negotiated treaties with France and Great Britain.
Benjamin Franklin, American Genius was written for 9-12 year old readers. I like the fact that it is quite a meaty and comprehensive book (122 pages), as most books for readers of this age are not as thorough. It is obvious that Brandon Marie Miller spent a great deal of time researching Franklin to write this factual account. The book is ideal for use in the classroom, and there are 21 fascinating activities for students scattered throughout the book. From dipping candles to making a walking stick, there are a lot of fun and interesting projects that will teach students about American life in the 1700s.
In addition to the activities, the book includes many drawings and photographs plus a resource guide with vocabulary words, Ben Franklin-related places to visit and further reading suggestions. This is the kind of book that is not just for the classroom. The entire family will enjoy reading Benjamin Franklin, American Genius and delving into the captivating life of one of our greatest citizens. Available at bookstores everywhere and through Independent Publishers Group at www.ipgbook.com
Note: This book mentions that Franklin “hung out with low women” despite his engagement to a Deborah Read and also indicates that Franklin fathered a child with a woman he never married. That child was born after his marriage, and his wife raised the child, even though she was not the biological mother. These facts are worded gently, however given the young age of the targeted readers (9-12), this may generate some questions.