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-soar”and “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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.