Review of the Day – Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin
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!
On shelves May 1st.
Source: Final copy sent from publisher for review.
Like This Book? Then Try:
- Her Right Foot by Dave Eggers
- The Music in George’s Head by Suzanne Slade
- Benny Goodman and Teddy Wilson by Lesa Cline-Ransome
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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