God Bless Amer­i­ca: The Sto­ry of an Immi­grant Named Irv­ing Berlin

Adah Nuchi; Rob Poliv­ka, illus.
  • Review
By – August 20, 2018

Giv­en that 2018 is the cen­ten­ni­al year of Irv­ing Berlin’s anthem God Bless Amer­i­ca,” this is the third dis­tin­guished pic­ture book biog­ra­phy of the com­pos­er to appear this year — but its lit­er­ary and artis­tic qual­i­ty make it far from redun­dant. Nuchi and Poliv­ka have cre­at­ed an acces­si­ble and rel­e­vant intro­duc­tion to Berlin’s life and work that will res­onate with both chil­dren and adults. By empha­siz­ing Berlin’s immi­grant back­ground, the book is also a much-need­ed reminder of new­com­ers’ pos­i­tive contributions.

Nuchi describes the per­se­cu­tion young Izzy Baline and his fam­i­ly endured as Jews in Rus­sia, as well as the hard­ships of life in their new coun­try. Crowd­ed liv­ing quar­ters and the inces­sant demands to make a liv­ing con­front­ed the ambi­tious and tal­ent­ed boy. Nuchi and Poliv­ka present the dif­fi­cul­ties and set­backs, as well as the per­sis­tence and luck, that defined Izzy’s life.

Con­ti­nu­ity is just as impor­tant as progress in this biog­ra­phy, with Nuchi cit­ing the zim-a-lay-quiver, weep, call, waver” of Hebrew prayer that young Izzy grew up with. At the same time, the author con­veys the chaot­ic excite­ment of Tin Pan Alley, where music clanged out of win­dows” and black and white notes danced off the press­es.” Younger chil­dren will be intrigued by Nuchi’s repeat­ed use of ono­matopoeia: toot‑a root-soarand scat-a-tat-tat.”Old­er read­ers, too, will appre­ci­ate the way these phras­es are woven into the nar­ra­tive and sup­port­ed with his­tor­i­cal back­ground. Berlin knew that Amer­i­ca need­ed an uplift­ing song to inspire and unite every­one, so he invent­ed A boom-rah-rah song. A big brass bel­ter … A song for Amer­i­ca.” That’s how God Bless Amer­i­ca” was born.

Polivka’s illus­tra­tions are inge­nious. Using car­toon ele­ments that will be famil­iar to read­ers of graph­ic nov­els, he cre­ates Berlin’s era and adds par­al­lels to our own with­out strain­ing to teach a les­son. Both author and illus­tra­tor show sen­si­tiv­i­ty and accu­ra­cy in depict­ing Amer­i­cans of dif­fer­ent races in both his­tor­i­cal and con­tem­po­rary settings.

God Bless Amer­i­ca is high­ly rec­om­mend­ed for read­ers ages 6 to 12. Its style and for­mat offer flex­i­ble oppor­tu­ni­ties for learn­ing about Berlin and his songs. The book includes a use­ful author’s note, time­line, and list of addi­tion­al sources.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

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