Leslie Kimmelman is the author of the new children's picture books Write On, Irving Berlin! and Here Come the Helpers. Her many other books for kids include Everybody Bonjours! and Everybody Says Shalom. A former senior editor and writer for Sesame Street Magazine, she lives outside New York City.
Q: Why did you decide to write a picture book biography of Irving Berlin, and what do you hope young readers take away from his life story?
A: First of all, I LOVE Irving Berlin's music! He wrote well over 1,000 songs, and though not all of them live up to his highest standards, the good ones are just gorgeous.
Then, too, I always thought it was fascinating that someone who was born Jewish, whose father was a cantor, who had to flee the pogroms of Russia, would grow up to write "White Christmas" and "Easter Parade." I had to know more about this composer.
And lastly, and maybe the main reason I didn't just learn for my own enrichment but decided to write a children's book about him, Irving Berlin is the quintessential immigrant success story. It's so important these days especially to stress the contributions of immigrants to this country.
Berlin's family was absolutely penniless--they arrived here with nothing--yet he grew up to be one of America's most revered songwriters-- "God Bless America," speaks to his enormous patriotism for the country that adopted him.
Q: How did you research the book, and did you learn anything that especially surprised you?
A: Many things surprised me: Berlin barely could play the piano; he played only the black keys. I'd always thought "God Bless America" was a World War II song, but it turns out that he wrote it during World War I, then put it away because there were already so many other similar songs. He took it out again in the run-up to World War II--and that's when it became a hit.
This year is the 100th birthday of the original composition. I also learned that all the proceeds for this song, from the beginning, went to the Boy and Girl Scouts of America. Berlin didn't take a dime of the profits.
The other thing that really surprised me was that when Berlin toured his show during World War II, the cast/crew was integrated, and Berlin refused to go anywhere that wouldn't accept everyone together. In this regard, he was ahead of the Armed Forces, which didn't integrate until after the war.
As far as research, there are a lot of good books (or parts of books) about Berlin, including one by his oldest daughter.
Q: You also have a new board book, Here Come the Helpers. How did you come up with the idea for this book?
A: Here Come the Helpers actually started as an animal ambulance book, because there don't seem to be any books for young kids about the ambulance experience, and when I first rode in one, I was terrified. (My son, on the other hand, found his first ambulance ride to be a huge adventure!).
I'm hoping that book comes out in the near future. My terrific editor at S & S, Jeff Salane, suggested that a book encompassing all emergency workers might be even more useful, given the headlines that are all too common now. I thought that was a brilliant idea, and Here Come the Helpers was born.
Obviously, I need to give a shout-out to Mister Rogers, who reminded us all in tough times to "look for the helpers." When things are dark, helpers are clearly the ones offering light.
Q: What do you think of the contributions of the books' illustrators, David C. Gardner and Barbara Bakos?
A: I can't imagine either book without the illustrations. David's give such a perfect period ambience to the book. I love the recurring motif of the Statue of Liberty. And of course, the picture of Berlin in the bathtub is awesome!
And Barbara's illustrations are absolutely fabulous. I had asked for animals rather than people, because emergencies are already scary; I think making the characters animals makes it a little more accessible to a young audience. I can't believe how cute she's made a difficult subject. And the colors! Wow! In my next life I want to be an artist....
--Interview with Deborah Kalb. Here's a previous Q&A with Leslie Kimmelman.