Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing

Written by Nancy Churnin, Illustrated by James Rey Sanchez

This is the true story of the famous American songwriter, Irving Berlin. Born May 11, 1888 in Western Siberia, Isreal Baline (as he was known then) immigrated to the United States at the age of five after Russian Cossacks burned the family home to the ground. When the family reached America and first caught sight of the Statue of Liberty, Isreal’s mother whispered, “God Bless America” and the little boy, deeply moved, vowed one day to write a song to his new country.

Life wasn’t easy for Jewish immigrants in the late 19th century and it became even harder when Irving’s father died. At the age of 13, he found himself living with other homeless children in a dirty New York tenement building and begging for food. But, even in such dire circumstances, the young boy’s love of music began to stir within him and he would often sing on street corners where passersby would throw him coins. Eventually at 18, Irving became a singing waiter. It was at the restaurant that he began to learn to play the piano. Irving couldn’t read or write music but he sang his songs to a friend who would write down the notes for him.

When America entered World War I, the U.S. Army paid Irving to write patriotic songs and 20 years later, when America went to war again, Irving wanted to write another patriotic song for his beloved country. He remembered his mother’s whispered words all those years before and they became the inspiration for the now famous and much loved song, “God Bless America.” Interestingly, Irvin made a great deal of money over the years from the many songs he wrote (over 1,500!) but he never took a dime for “God Bless America.” (All of the vast royalties go to the Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts of America.) In 1989, Irving Berlin died two months shy of his 102nd birthday, a very wealthy and much-loved American.

I really liked this book that deals with loss, tragedy, and the ultimate American success story. It tells the age-old immigrant story of the desire for a better life and how America can fulfill that desire with hard work , sacrifice and dedication to the dream. In these difficult times today it was refreshing and uplifting to read that America has been, and will continue to be, a land of opportunity for those seeking a better life. I recommend this book for 4th grade and up.

Reviewed by Lynda H. Wilson, Media Clerk, David Gourley Elementary
Review shared in October 2021
Rating: ★★★★★ (5 stars)
Interest Level: Grades 4 and up

Author Book Website:

Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing
Written by Nancy Churnin, Illustrated by James Rey Sanchez
Creston Books
32 pages
Release Date: May 1, 2018
ISBN: 9781939547446

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