Irving Berlin: The Immigrant Boy Who Made America Sing by Nancy Churnin, illustrated by James Rey Sanchez (Creston Books, 2018)
The Whole Megillah (TWM): What prompted you to write about Irving Berlin?
Nancy Churnin (NC): I love Irving Berlin’s music and how his story reminds us of the gifts that immigrants have brought America. All four of my grandparents were Jewish immigrants just like Irving. I grew up with songs like “God Bless America,” which my mother liked to sing every morning as she walked around the house. When my friend Mark Kreditor, a music educator, showed me that the last three notes of “God Bless America” were the same last three notes of the shema, I had an “aha!” moment. I wanted to show how immigrants like Irving take what is precious in their culture and mix it with what they learn in America to create something beautiful and new. Usually, I look for subjects who inspire me that the kids don’t know about yet. Irving Berlin is the most famous person I’ve written about, but many kids don’t know who he is! So I feel I’m bringing his story to a new generation. I also hope I’m raising awareness of the immigrant experience in a way that will build empathy for how tough it is to leave everything you know behind to start a new life in a new land, respect for how hard so many immigrants work and how many, like Irving Berlin, give back. I wanted children to know that Irving Berlin donated all the royalties from “God Bless America” to the Girl and Boy Scouts of America, which has brought them millions of dollars over the years. There’s a YouTube of Irving Berlin singing “God Bless America” with the Girl and Boy Scouts on the Ed Sullivan Show. You can hear his love for his country in his voice and how much it means to him that he has been able to use his musical gift to help the children of America the way America helped him as a child.
TWM: You note in your back matter that you worked with his family. How did you get in touch with them and what were their contributions?
NC: As the theater critic of The Dallas Morning News, I had interviewed Ted Chapin, chief creative officer of the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, which also represents the work of Irving Berlin. I reached out to him to check the manuscript and he was kind enough to check it with the Berlin family as well. I made small alterations based on their notes. The funniest exchange involved my reference to Irving Berlin learning the phrase “God Bless America” from his mother when he was a little boy. At first the family didn’t recall that being the origin of the phrase. Professor, author and all-around mensch Philip Furia, who wrote “Irving Berlin: A Life in Song,” helped me by locating a source that showed Irving Berlin talking about how he heard the phrase from his mother. I shared that finding with the family. That jogged their memory and they were happy with it.
TWM: Do you belong to a writers’ group?
NC: I belong to many! I started with the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrators, which has been enormously helpful. I have a critique group through the North Texas branch. I am a member of the 12X12 group founded and run by Julie Hedlund, which is how I got my agent in 2013. As a member of this supportive group, I was able to submit a manuscript to an agent each month. In July of my first year in 12X12, I sent the manuscript that became The William Hoy Story, How a Deaf Baseball Player Changed the Game to Karen Grencik of Red Fox Literary. She has sold six picture books for me, including Irving Berlin. I also have a membership to Rate Your Story, which allows me to submit stories for a rating — a big help to seeing if I’m on target or not. I have other groups, too, some of which are more active than others.
TWM: What was your greatest challenge in writing this book? Your greatest satisfaction?
NC: One of my biggest challenges was to figure out how to convey the way Irving processed the world through sounds. I studied other biographies of musicians, including Suzanne Slade’s The Music in George’s Head: George Gershwin Creates Rhapsody in Blue to see how other authors handled it. I dug down into the details of Irving’s life and tried to think of each sound he would have heard: carriages “rumbled,” “a crazy, thrilling metal contraption called an elevated train clanked and whooshed overhead.” On the next page, “…the melodies in his head mixed with the crack of stickball games, the wail of the ragmen, and the creak of cartwheels on the cobblestones.” My greatest satisfaction was finding a way to tell his story that captures a distinct, compelling journey within the larger story of his remarkable life of 101 years, following the thread from his dream of writing a song for the Statue of Liberty to his achievement in composing “God Bless America” for the land he loved.
TWM: Who inspires you?
NC: Irving Berlin and all the subjects of my books inspire me. I only write about people who inspire me! The parents, teachers and librarians who change children’s lives for the better by putting books into children’s hands — they inspire me. And the children whose hearts are so open and welcoming of new ideas and stories about people who persevere to achieve their dreams against the odds — the children inspire me every day to write more stories that I hope will be worthy of them.
TWM: What’s next for you?
NC: I’m very excited about Martin & Anne which will come out next year from Creston Books. It’s the true story of two babies who were born in 1929 on opposite sides of the ocean. They had different religions, different skin colors and different languages. They both faced extreme prejudice, but met hate with love and left us with words that continue to inspire us today. Those babies grew up to become Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Anne Frank. It’s being illustrated by Yevgenia Nayberg, who won a Sydney Taylor Honor Award this year for Drop by Drop: A Story of Rabbi Akiva by Jacqueline Jules, published by Kar Ben. I’ve seen Yevgenia’s sketches for Martin & Anne and they’re amazing. I can’t wait for you to see it!
Thanks so much, Barbara, for hosting me on your wonderful Whole Megillah!