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  • Writer's pictureJim Bessman

Irving Berlin a big hit at BookExpo

Leslie Kimmelman

Leslie Kimmelman at BookExpo

As one of the most significant and prolific (over 1,500 songs written) tunesmiths of Tin Pan Alley, Irving Berlin surely deserves not just one but two children’s books, both published last month in time for BookExpo.

But Berlin’s story is also most compelling, as Leslie Kimmelman, author of Write On, Irving Berlin! (Sleeping Bear Press, illustrated by award-winning illustrator and visual development artist David C. Gardner), pointed out while signing copies of her book at last week’s BookExpo trade show at the Javits Center.

“It’s the quintessential immigrant story,” said Kimmelman.

“Irving Berlin came to America at the age of five [having fled with his family from Russia] in 1893, without a penny.”

Little Israel Isidore Baline, Kimmelman added, had also seen his family’s house burn down, set afire by roving gangs during anti-Jewish pogroms. She also recounted, at BookExpo and in Write On, Irving Berlin!, how Berlin loved his new country, and after changing his name, wrote patriotic songs like “God Bless America”—while even then facing anti-Semitism—and donated his income from it to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America.

His landmark “White Christmas,” written in 1942 during World War II, also roused anger in those who objected to a Jewish immigrant writing a Christmas song.

“He faced a lot of prejudice,” said Kimmelman, noting that Berlin, who had served in the Army in World War I, performed his fully integrated show This Is the Army for soldiers all over the world during World War II (the U.S. Armed Forces didn’t integrate until after the war), donating all he made from it to wartime charities.

“I love Irving Berlin’s music,” said Kimmelman (her previous children’s books include Hot Dog! Eleanor Roosevelt Throws a Picnic and The Little Red Hen and the Passover Matzah), “and thought it was time for a good immigration story.”

Meanwhile, picture book publisher Creston Books has issued Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing, penned by Nancy Churnin and illustrated by James Rey Sanchez. Like Write On, Irving Berlin!, it’s 32 pages long.



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