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Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

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Irving Berlin came to the United States as a refugee from Tsarist Russia, escaping a pogrom that destroyed his village. Growing up on the streets of the lower East Side, the rhythms of jazz and blues inspired his own song-writing career. Starting with his first big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin created the soundtrack for American life with his catchy tunes and ir Irving Berlin came to the United States as a refugee from Tsarist Russia, escaping a pogrom that destroyed his village. Growing up on the streets of the lower East Side, the rhythms of jazz and blues inspired his own song-writing career. Starting with his first big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin created the soundtrack for American life with his catchy tunes and irresistible lyrics. With "God Bless America," he sang his thanks to the country which had given him a home and a chance to express his creative vision.


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Irving Berlin came to the United States as a refugee from Tsarist Russia, escaping a pogrom that destroyed his village. Growing up on the streets of the lower East Side, the rhythms of jazz and blues inspired his own song-writing career. Starting with his first big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin created the soundtrack for American life with his catchy tunes and ir Irving Berlin came to the United States as a refugee from Tsarist Russia, escaping a pogrom that destroyed his village. Growing up on the streets of the lower East Side, the rhythms of jazz and blues inspired his own song-writing career. Starting with his first big hit, "Alexander's Ragtime Band," Berlin created the soundtrack for American life with his catchy tunes and irresistible lyrics. With "God Bless America," he sang his thanks to the country which had given him a home and a chance to express his creative vision.

30 review for Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

  1. 5 out of 5

    Betsy

    Patriotism is subjective. Until recently I might have thought myself somewhat immune to its charms. I like my country quite a lot, but I’ve a low-tolerance for nationalism, and in this particular day and age that’s not a difficult thing to come by. Fortunately all is not lost. As it turns out, children’s books have proved to be a surprising repository for hope and patriotism in the best sense of the term. Last year the book Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers actually made me tear up every time I read Patriotism is subjective. Until recently I might have thought myself somewhat immune to its charms. I like my country quite a lot, but I’ve a low-tolerance for nationalism, and in this particular day and age that’s not a difficult thing to come by. Fortunately all is not lost. As it turns out, children’s books have proved to be a surprising repository for hope and patriotism in the best sense of the term. Last year the book Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers actually made me tear up every time I read it using little more than the Statue of Liberty and her role as it pertains to immigration. Immigration has proven to be a strong theme in many other books published this year, but one in particular stands out for me. While the story of Jewish immigration through Ellis Island is hardly new, Nancy Churnin and James Rey Sanchez’s Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing taps into a fascinating life, giving a great deal of meaning to someone born in another country. Irving was a dreamer, and I mean that in every sense of the term. A small boy, fleeing the Cossacks of Russia, Irving Berlin (born Israel Baline) was on a voyage to America when he was just five-years-old. Settling in New York City, his family lived in a crowded apartment where they didn’t have much of anything. When his father died, Irving was 13 and determined to make his way in the world. Singing on the street worked at first. Then singing in restaurants. Then writing music to make some dough. With the influence of his Jewish roots, jazz, and ragtime coming together, Irving used his music to celebrate his adopted country. And when the time came to make a ballad for WWII, Irving took the three notes from the Shema he heard on the boat from Russia and turned them into “God Bless America”. All this from a once penniless boy, “who came to America with nothing but music in his heart.” Churnin’s book is by no means the first Irving Berlin picture book biography we’ve seen, but it may be the first to tip a hat the fact that the man was Jewish. Only it doesn’t come out and say “Irving Berlin was Jewish” straight out so much as place the man within the context of his own life. Churnin is interested in drawing connections between Berlin’s music and the cantorial tradition, but in a way that’s accessible in a picture book format. No small job. She’s also made the choice of showing his entire life in a mere 32-pages rather than a single inciting incident representing the whole. It’s interesting to watch the ways in which his Jewishness either does or does not show up in the story. I credit the book with making it clear, but is it too subtle? Should it be more explicit? Possibly. But it isn’t enough to merely take the facts of a person’s life and put them down on paper. It’s clear from the very subtitle of this book that Ms. Churnin is saying something strong and resounding about the role of immigrants in America, no matter their point of origin. What makes Irving such a fascinating test case is how he took his Jewish cantor songs and used them to not just adapt to the American music scene but redefine it in his own image. He wrote songs for two World Wars. Songs for American musicals. But what Churnin chooses to focus on most closely is his work on “God Bless America”. She ties that song into the words Irving said that his mother said to him when they arrived in New York. Listen to how she describes the song: “It ended with three notes from the Shema, as he remembered hearing them on the boat, coming to America, long ago when the Statue had smiled at his prayer… At the end of the old melody, he added new words about the land he loved.” So it is that Churning shows kids how Irving took different elements and merged them together to make something wholly new. She doesn’t need to drill the point home. Kids are going to get that well enough on their own. I’ve recently been thinking more and more about the role of the illustrator in a picture book biography versus the role of the author. I hold authors accountable for quite a lot, particularly when they indulge in fake dialogue (something Churnin appears to eschew here). Illustration is a bit different. Unless you’re working off of a documentary or photographs, pictures are inherently fictional. Who’s to say that a biographical subject held their head at just that angle at that precise moment in time? So we let artists get away with a bit more. They can put a little more art into their artistry. Consider, for example, Sanchez’s use of Berlin’s red scarf. The scarf is a through line that connects the book. It’s on Irving’s neck when he takes a boat to New York City. It wraps around him when he’s cold and wet on the streets. It flows in tandem with the notes that pour out of Irving’s mouth and it appears on the neck of his old and young selves at the end. So am I giving artists a free pass here? Certainly not. I can believe in the scarf because it’s something Irving could have had. But if Mr. Sanchez were to fill this book with obviously incorrect details (women in the early 1900s wearing pants, a city made up entirely of white people, Irving as a blonde, etc.) then that would be a red flag that he wasn’t taking this book very seriously. Instead, while I cannot vouch that every tiny detail is correct, there’s a ring of authenticity to what we see here. And, y’know, extra bonus: It’s fun to look at! When I worked as a public children’s librarian I grew to dread the picture book biography school assignment. Not because I thought they were a bad idea. I thought they were great! But in New York City different teachers require different things from a “good” biography. First and foremost: A Timeline. You’d be shocked at how few picture book biographies indulge in this little necessity. Teachers like Timelines and a book without one can often prove to be less useful to kids. Now the interesting thing about Irving Berlin is that while it does have a lovely Author’s Note (that serves as a kind of supplemental biography) and Timeline, there isn’t a Bibliography in sight. Fortunately, this is less of a problem for teachers and shouldn’t impede its use. I’d like one personally since there’s at least one direct quote in the text, but the aforementioned Author’s Note does say that the manuscript was vetted by the Berlin family and Ted Chapin of the Irving Berlin Music Company. So that’s okay then. There is one moment in this book that becomes significantly more “wordy” than any other. Around page 24 Ms. Churnin fills half the page with text about Berlin and the wars he contributed to. It’s an interesting choice in a book that, both before and after that section, limits itself to just a couple sentences a page. I think I know why it’s there, of course. In that half a page, Churnin is basically making the point of the book. That Irving was a machine, churning out all those patriotic songs. That he had good reason to do so. That when he created “God Bless America” it was an amalgamation of his past and his present and the world (and times) in which he lived. More to the point, it’s yet another reminder that this man was an immigrant who paid back his new country tenfold with his talent. Together, Churnin and Sanchez have created a timely biography that says a lot about the world in which we live and, as a bonus, just happens to be gorgeous to the eye and ear alike. More like this please! For ages 5-7.

  2. 4 out of 5

    Gary Anderson

    In Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing, Nancy Churnin delivers another inspiring picture book biography. Beginning with young Irving arriving in New York on a boat from Russia, readers understand that for Irving, music and his love for America were inseparable. As with most immigrants, life in America was at first difficult for Irving, but by following his passion for music, he eventually found success and made important contributions to America through his songs. Irving Berl In Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing, Nancy Churnin delivers another inspiring picture book biography. Beginning with young Irving arriving in New York on a boat from Russia, readers understand that for Irving, music and his love for America were inseparable. As with most immigrants, life in America was at first difficult for Irving, but by following his passion for music, he eventually found success and made important contributions to America through his songs. Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made American Sing can be used as a stand-alone biography, and is also useful for building background knowledge related to immigration, fine arts, New York, and patriotism. With its thorough back matter and especially fine binding, this is a worthwhile addition to school and home bookshelves.

  3. 5 out of 5

    Suzie Olsen

    My first thought is wow! Such an inspiring and uplifting story about Irving Berlin and "God Bless America!" I really want to get a hold of the hard copy now! I want to be able to actually flip through the pages, admiring the actual ink of the illustrations and soak in the words. It is such a well written, and beautiful story. And the the illustrations are gorgeous! The lighting of each illustration, and the theme of Irving's red scarf throughout, and the details of the background are so well don My first thought is wow! Such an inspiring and uplifting story about Irving Berlin and "God Bless America!" I really want to get a hold of the hard copy now! I want to be able to actually flip through the pages, admiring the actual ink of the illustrations and soak in the words. It is such a well written, and beautiful story. And the the illustrations are gorgeous! The lighting of each illustration, and the theme of Irving's red scarf throughout, and the details of the background are so well done. The illustrations really set the tone and match well the mood of the words.

  4. 4 out of 5

    Robin Newman

    Irving Berlin, one of the most famous American composers of the Twentieth Century, if not THE most famous, immigrated to the United States from Western Siberia. He was just five years old when he laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty and his mother uttered those famous words, “God bless America.” His father had been a cantor and it was his influence, along with his experiences growing up in New York's lower east side (not stated specifically in the text but the illustrations with an image of Katz’s Irving Berlin, one of the most famous American composers of the Twentieth Century, if not THE most famous, immigrated to the United States from Western Siberia. He was just five years old when he laid eyes on the Statue of Liberty and his mother uttered those famous words, “God bless America.” His father had been a cantor and it was his influence, along with his experiences growing up in New York's lower east side (not stated specifically in the text but the illustrations with an image of Katz’s delicatessen and the tenements clearly suggest it) with immigrants from around the world that became music to his ears. Upon his father’s death at the age of 13, he became homeless and then began to sing in the street for pennies. That one experience led to the beginning of his career as a composer. Incredibly he didn’t read music until much later in his life. This book will warm your heart. Nancy Churnin’s words are beautifully lyrical and the illustrations are beyond gorgeous. In this day and age, this book is also a wonderful reminder that America is a country of immigrants. And that it was Berlin, an immigrant, who composed one of America’s most patriotic songs, “God Bless America.” I highly recommend this book.

  5. 5 out of 5

    Daniel

    This review originally published in Looking For a Good Book. Rated 5.0 of 5 This children's picture book about one of America's greatest songwriters - who wasn't actually born in the United States of America - is an absolutely marvelous biographical tribute. Author Nancy Churnin somehow manages to tell the entire Irving Berlin life story in thirty-two gorgeously illustrated pages, hitting the highlights, catching the struggles and the passions of the young man who gave us songs such as "Alexander This review originally published in Looking For a Good Book. Rated 5.0 of 5 This children's picture book about one of America's greatest songwriters - who wasn't actually born in the United States of America - is an absolutely marvelous biographical tribute. Author Nancy Churnin somehow manages to tell the entire Irving Berlin life story in thirty-two gorgeously illustrated pages, hitting the highlights, catching the struggles and the passions of the young man who gave us songs such as "Alexander's Ragtime Band" "Easter Parade" "White Christmas" and "God Bless America." Although I had heard it before, I had forgotten that Irving Berlin never took any money, personally, for "God Bless America" but instead donated the proceeds to Girl and Boy Scouts. Churnin captures the spirit of the American Dream - that America is a land of infinite possibilities and that you can do or be anything or anyone if you want it badly enough and work for it. Who would have guessed that a Russian immigrant child would become one of America's greatest song-writers? James Rey Sanchez is the artist for the book and his work is a tremendous complement to the book. The art reminds me of the stylistic animation from the United Productions of America and Warner Brothers studios of the 1950's. It is very eye-catching and children will have a lot to look at and not be bored while parents read the book out loud. Looking for a good book? Irving Berlin, the Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin and James Rey Sanchez is an all-around wonderful book and should be in every library in the country and on as many family bookshelves as possible. I received a digital copy of this book from the publisher, through Edelweiss, in exchange for an honest review.

  6. 4 out of 5

    Linda

    I've known something of Irving Berlin's life before, that he wrote Alexander's Ragtime Band, White Christmas and God Bless America, but Nancy Churnin has managed to write of his life from his poor beginnings as an immigrant in NYC to his extraordinary successes as a composer in a way to introduce him to young children, or those readers who want to read a short biography as a start to research. He came from Russia, in a poor family when his father died when Irving was twelve, he had to quit schoo I've known something of Irving Berlin's life before, that he wrote Alexander's Ragtime Band, White Christmas and God Bless America, but Nancy Churnin has managed to write of his life from his poor beginnings as an immigrant in NYC to his extraordinary successes as a composer in a way to introduce him to young children, or those readers who want to read a short biography as a start to research. He came from Russia, in a poor family when his father died when Irving was twelve, he had to quit school to try to find ways to earn pennies to help. He loved music and singing so much that when one time he felt so full with music, he burst into song. People liked that and threw pennies. He was excited, soon was noticed by a restaurant owner who hired him as a singing waiter. The story really is a "rags to riches" tale. With a friend, he wrote his first song and they sold it for 37 cents! Irving never had formal music training, used a "transposing" machine eventually to write his compositions. The book shares a few songs I didn't know he wrote, like the score of Annie Get Your Gun that has "There's No Business Like Show Business", and a most famous one is "White Christmas. There are many others. There is an author's note and a timeline added in the backmatter.

  7. 4 out of 5

    Cindy Mitchell *Kiss the Book*

    Churnin, Nancy Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez. PICTURE BOOK. Creston, 2018. $18. 9781939547446. In the 1890’s Irving’s family fled from Russian Cossacks, just as many other Jewish families did. Thoguh his home in New York City was small and poor, music surrounded him constantly. Even after his father died and he slept on the streets, the music still called to him. He taught himself how to pick melodies out on the piano and eventually wrote Churnin, Nancy Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez. PICTURE BOOK. Creston, 2018. $18. 9781939547446. In the 1890’s Irving’s family fled from Russian Cossacks, just as many other Jewish families did. Thoguh his home in New York City was small and poor, music surrounded him constantly. Even after his father died and he slept on the streets, the music still called to him. He taught himself how to pick melodies out on the piano and eventually wrote more than 1500 songs – many of which are still sung today. Chrunin cuts right to the heart of Berlin’s story and together with Sanchez’s illustrations, they create a simple, heart-felt biography of the composer. I would love to use this in any music class. EL (K-3), EL – ESSENTIAL. Cindy, Library Teacher https://kissthebook.blogspot.com/2018...

  8. 5 out of 5

    Jana

    As families sit outside on blankets together to enjoy fireworks displays this summer, they are certain to hear some of Irving Berlin's music, especially "God Bless America". The days leading up to the Fourth of July would be a terrific time to share this interesting picture book biography that tells the story of young Irving Berlin, who fled Russia with his family at the end of the nineteenth century. A poor, homeless young man, Berlin worked very hard as a waiter and learned to write music. As As families sit outside on blankets together to enjoy fireworks displays this summer, they are certain to hear some of Irving Berlin's music, especially "God Bless America". The days leading up to the Fourth of July would be a terrific time to share this interesting picture book biography that tells the story of young Irving Berlin, who fled Russia with his family at the end of the nineteenth century. A poor, homeless young man, Berlin worked very hard as a waiter and learned to write music. As his songs became more famous, people all across America were encouraged by his music during rough times. It might be fun to find some of his music on the internet and share it with youngsters who are probably familiar with several of the songs (even if they don't know it). There is an author's note and a timeline at the back of the book that might serve as a good starting point for further research.

  9. 4 out of 5

    Denice Hein

    Great picture book/biography about a Russian Immigrant and how he become the person to write "God Bless America".

  10. 5 out of 5

    Carol Ekster

    This picture book biography is so beautifully written and it's such an inspirational story. It gave me goosebumps!

  11. 5 out of 5

    Maggie Mattmiller

    At the start I was worried it wouldn't get to where I was expecting/hoping it would... but of course it did! Definitely need to add this to my classroom library!

  12. 4 out of 5

    Gail Johnson

  13. 5 out of 5

    John

  14. 4 out of 5

    Lashonda Griffin

  15. 4 out of 5

    Darshana Khiani (Flowering Minds)

  16. 4 out of 5

    Michele Knott

  17. 5 out of 5

    Marissa77

  18. 5 out of 5

    Annese

  19. 4 out of 5

    Alyson (Kid Lit Frenzy)

  20. 4 out of 5

    Annie

  21. 5 out of 5

    Thomas Barragan

  22. 5 out of 5

    Beth

  23. 4 out of 5

    Terra

  24. 5 out of 5

    Jacqui

  25. 4 out of 5

    Jolene Gutierrez

  26. 5 out of 5

    Madeline

  27. 4 out of 5

    Laretta

  28. 4 out of 5

    Tanya

  29. 4 out of 5

    Jennifer

  30. 5 out of 5

    Melissa

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