Irving Berlin: Say it with Music

Title: Say it with Music
Author: Tom Streissguth
Pages: 64
Recommended Ages: 9 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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I’d never heard of Irving Berlin before purchasing this book. I thought he would be some small fry composer. Imagine my shock to discover that he was the composer behind White Christmas, God Bless America and a host of other popular songs, some of them favorites of mine…

His Life.

Born in Russia, Irving Berlin immigrated to America with his family in the 1890s after their house and belongings were destroyed in a pogrom. Only then he wasn’t Irving Berlin. He was Israel Baline. As a young boy, he sold newspapers on the streets of New York City and, as this was often a dull job, he passed his time singing. He soon discovered that his voice earned as much for him as the newspapers he was selling.

Irving decided to make a living off of his voice – he began to perform is saloons, and soon, he was hired by Harry Von Tilzer, a music publisher, to help popularize the songs that he was publishing. From popularizing the works of other musicians to composing his own jingles was a natural progression.

From there, Irving was hired to compose a songs for Broadway shows. It was during this time that Irving met Dorothy Goetz. They married quickly and were happy together for five short months before Dorothy died of typhoid fever.

When WWI began, Berlin was drafted into the U. S. Army. Although marched about and drilled from morning to night, Irving still found time to write, and even put on a show (Yip, Yip, Yaphank) that earned $80,000 for the U. S. Army.

Irving struggled to adjust to the changes in the music industry after WWI. But he kept fighting and writing and making a name for himself. Soon, Irving met and married Ellin Mackay. Together, they had three daughters – Mary, Linda, and Elizabeth.

Irving’s many wonderful compositions live on and are still enjoyed but millions across the globe.


Irving marries his second wife against her father’s wishes. Her father disinherited her when he heard of her marriage.

Luck and magic are each mentioned once.

Concluions. A fine introduction to one of Broadway’s great composers.

The Book of Presidents

Title: The Book of Presidents
Author: Orville V. Webster
Pages: 128
Reading Level: 9 – 14
Star Rating: ★★★★

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I’ve recently begun to look upon listing all the names of the Presidents as a sort of hobby – an entertainment, a tour de force. However, I was unable to list them in chronological order – until I read The Book of Presidents and memorized their order in one sitting. #yesimproud

Anyway, that was just a side effect. The book itself follows a definite pattern – the name of the president was presented, then the years of his service as President. Next came his nickname (or motto, whichever was more popular), then the dates of his birth and death. Thence followed a two-to-five page biography of the president. His life in a nutshell, so to speak.

Of course, having been published in 1991, The Book of Presidents fell rather short of the description “up-to-date”. The book ends with President “George Bush” (no H. or W. in sight! Shocking.) However, its reports on the other Presidents were not falsified by this lack of foresight. :)

Here are a few interesting facts

  • Abigail Adams is the only woman in U.S. history to be the wife of one President and the mother of another.
  • When he died in 1836, James Madison was the last surviving signer of the Constitution.
  • Of the five Presidents who participated in the American War for Independence, three of them – Thomas Jefferson, John Adams, and James Monroe – died on a Fourth of July.
  • Andrew Jackson participated in approximately 100 duels during his lifetime.
  • Martin Van Buren was the first President born after the United States became an independent nation.
  • William Henry Harrison is known for having given the longest inaugural address in U.S. history – it consisted of 8,578 words and lasted for one hour and forty-five minutes – and for having the shortest Presidential term!
  • John Tyler’s second wife was thirty years younger than himself.
  • One of Zachary Taylor’s daughters married Jefferson Davis!
  • Ulysses S. Grant finished his autobiography just four days before his death.
  • Garfield was able to write with both of his hands simultaneously – in different languages!
  • Teddy Roosevelt was the first President to leave U.S. soil while in office. He was also the first President to ride in an automobile, fly in an airplane, and submerge in a submarine.
  • Franklin Roosevelt was related to eleven former U.S. Presidents.
  • Gerald Ford was the first man to become President without having run for the office of either President or Vice-President.

Lincoln haters should be informed that, although practically nothing is said about the War Between the States, Lincoln is referred to as “one of the greatest men in all American history.” [pg. 51]

Conclusion. An excellent resource.

Who Was Ronald Reagan?

Title: Who Was Ronald Reagan?
Author: Joyce Milton
Illustrator: Elizabeth Wolf
Pages: 106
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Who was Ronald Reagan? What did he believe? What did he stand for? What did he do with his life? All of these questions and more are answered in Who Was Ronald Reagan?


Many fun facts are given from Reagan’s life. For example, did you know …

…that during the six years that he served as a bodyguard at Rock River, Ronald Reagan rescued seventy seven people?

… that although Reagan’s first name was always Ronald, he was called ‘Dutch’ Reagan until he became an actor at the age of twenty-six?

… that Reagan acted in over sixty movies and thirteen TV shows?

… that Reagan turned seventy less than a month after he was elected, making him the oldest person to become President?

One thing that I really liked in Who Was Ronald Reagan? were the little boxed notes that it featured on different historical events – Prohibition, the Great Depression, The Cold War, the Berlin Wall, etc. These helped give context to the events in Reagan’s life.

Reagan was initially a big fan of FDR and his plans to help America, he later decided, “that the government had gotten too big. The government in Washington, D.C., kept starting new programs. But, Reagan complained, few of the were ended even after they had served their purpose. Reagan came to believe that, in the long run, government created as many problems as it solved.” [pg. 56-57] Woohoo!


Reagan’s Grenada invasion is discussed briefly and his opinion (that “what happened in the Middle East was ‘everybody’s business’“) is given.

Reagan’s first marriage and subsequent divorce are mentioned.

It is reported that on their first date Nancy and Reagan stayed out until three in the morning.

On illustration shows a woman in a bathing suit.

Conclusion. An excellent introduction for young students.

Little Sure Shot

Title: Little Sure Shot
Author: Stephanie Spinner
Pages: 48
Reading Level: Beginner
Star Rating: ★★★

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Time for a little sharp-shooting.

Her Life.

Little Annie was nine years old when she first began to shoot. And it didn’t begin as a hobby – she shot to provide food for her poor family. And it worked! Annie quickly became a crack shot, and shot so much game that she was able to sell some of it to restaurants.

When Annie was fifteen, she went to live with her sister, Lyda, and brother-in-law, Joe, in Cincinatti. It was there that she participated in her first shooting match. She beat the famous sharp-shooter, Frank Butler for a prize of one hundred dollars! Apparently, that’s not the only thing Annie won, because a year later, she and Frank were married.

Soon they began shooting together in Frank’s shows. Annie learned all of Frank’s tricks and began performing a few of her own. They performed together in Buffalo Bill’s Wild West show, and eventually traveled to Europe. Annie even got to meet Queen Victoria and Germany’s Crown Prince!

Annie shot up until her death in 1926. She is remembered now as one of the most talented sharp-shooters in the world.


Ms. Spinner writes that Annie couldn’t understand why a women couldn’t be a lady and a crack-shot, too. She thought she could be both. And I agreed with her; I don’t see anything contradictory in femininity and strength. However, the last page praises Annie for her progressive spirit, clearly contrasting it with “staying at home and taking care of children”.

As a little girl, Annie does something knowing that her mother would disapprove.

‘Heck’ is used three times.

Conclusion. Very simple, but good.

The Country Artist

Title: The Country Artist
Author: David R. Collins
Illustrator: Karen Ritz
Pages: 56
Reading Level: 9-12
Star Rating: ★★★

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Beatrix Potter. The name that now means cozy little animal stories for children. The name that produced dozens of animal characters who have delighted generations. But who was she? What was she like?

Beatrix’s life is simply described in The Country Artist from her life in upscale London, through her gloomy childhood, eventual marriage, and life at Hill Top Farm.


Beatrix’s family was wealthy, and both of her parents chose to occupy themselves with indolence. They were not really involved in their children’s upbringing save when important decisions – such as education – were to be made. These decisions were made without any real knowledge of their childrens’ souls, and the children themselves often chafed under the decisions. Later, Beatrix engaged herself to a man against her family’s wishes; they objected because he did not meet their social standard. This man died before they could be married, and she later became engaged again under similar circumstances.

We are told that a particular nurse told Beatrix “Scottish tales of witches and fairies, of enchanted forests and glens.” [pg. 9]

Obviously, the very stories Beatrix wrote were partially fantasy and are discussed.

Conclusion. An interesting biography of a prominent authoress who was plagued by significant relationship issues.

Meet Benjamin Franklin

Title: Meet Benjamin Franklin
Author: Maggi Scarf
Pages: 64
Recommended Ages: 7-10
Star Rating: ★★★★★

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A solid, sober, biography of Benjamin Franklin for younger readers, Meet Benjamin Franklin presents the basic facts of Franklin’s life along with a few funny stories about him. The illustrations are realistic and expand the texts’ effectiveness.


Keep in mind that Franklin had rocky relationships with his parents and older brother.

One page declares that people in England “began to think of him [Franklin] as a kind of magician.” [pg. 51] Franklin exploits their credulity by playing a “magic” trick on them – they fall for it – but he winds up explaining the trick to them.

Conclusion. Great introductory biography.

Leonardo Da Vinci

Title: Leonardo Da Vinci
Author: Martin & Alice Provensen
Pages: 12
Recommended Ages: Read-Aloud
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Leonardo Da Vinci is a fully illustrated pop-up book which discusses Da Vinci in terms of his interests and several of his projects. The illustrations themselves are inattentive to detail – they’re blotchy, really – but the pop-ups are clever and make the book very interactive.

Since it is a beginning-beginners’ book, Leonardo Da Vinci does not offer an opinion of Da Vinci – whether he was a ‘good’ person – but instead focuses on his accomplishments.

‘Luck’ is credited with the preservation of a man’s life.

Conclusion. Good.

The Kidnapped Prince

Title: The Kidnapped Prince
Author: Olaudah Equiano
Pages: 133
Recommended Ages: 12 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

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So, have any of you watched Amazing Grace starring Ioan Gruffudd and Romola Garai? If so, you may remember the black man who urged Wilberforce to engage in the fight against slavery, and who later wrote an autobiography of his life. The Kidnapped Prince is a condensed version of that autobiography. : O

His Life.

Olaudah was born in Essaka, an African village not far from the Equator. The son of one of the leaders in their community, Olaudah is a child specially marked for distinction among the rulers of his land. For he shall soon inherit his father’s role as embrenche in the village – one of the great judges.

But before Olaudah can receive this distinction, he is cruelly ripped away from his village by the dreaded slave traders. Where will they take him? Will Olaudah ever see his family again?


The religious setting of this book is unique. As a child, Olaudah is a member of a tribe that believed in

a god – one Creator of all things, who lived in the sun. He didn’t eat or drink, we thought, because of a belt that he wore tight around his waist. But sometimes, like us, he smoked a pipe.

We believed God controlled everything that happened. Especially, we thought, he decided things about our death, or our capture in a battle. Also we believed that our dear friends and relations who had died watched over us and guarded us from bad spirits and from our enemies. [pgs. 4-5]

Olaudah writes that his tribe would make offerings to the spirits of his ancestors on New Year’s Day. They also had wise men who foretold events.

As Olaudah is brought into the white man’s world, he must adjust to all of the new information he is receiving.  He initially believes that the white men are spirits come from another world but quickly learns his error. He also believes that the ship he is on is governed by magic, but again, he discovers his mistake. Most of all, he is astonished to find that the white men do not offer sacrifices to their God and ancestors. He begins to attend church with his master (having learned some English) and when he learns that he ‘can’t go to Heaven unless he is baptized’ he takes prompt action. He is baptized into Christianity. A friend reads the Bible to him and from then on out, Olaudah subscribes to the Christian God. He never states any of his beliefs about God, but his continual references to God, Heaven, and Providence seem to show that he was genuine in whatever those beliefs were. After Olaudah is sold to another master, he writes,

I creid very bitterly for some time. Then I began to think I must have done something to displease God – He was punishing me so severely. I thought about my past conduct and remembered something: the morning we arrived in Deptford I had said to myself, “When we reach London, I swear I’ll spend the whole day having fun!”

Now my conscience smote me for this casual expression, because I had sworn. I begged God’s forgiveness. I prayed for him not to abandon me, nor cast me from his mercy forever.

In a little while my grief was spent with its own violence. It began to subside. My first confusion was over, and I thought with more calmness. I considered that trials and disappointments are sometimes for our good. I thought God might perhaps have permitted this, in order to teach me wisdom and resignation.

These thoughts gave me a little comfort. I got up from the deck with dejection and sorrow in my face, yet with some faint hope that God would deliver me. [pg. 69]

Apparently God did deliver him, for later he writes, “It reconciled me to my situation and made me bless God for the hands into which I had fallen.” [pg. 77] There are many other refereces to God – thanks for His blessings, despair under his anger, etc.

The only deviation from this occurs when Olaudah visits a fortune teller who fortells the next year and a half of his life with precision. All that she says comes true, and then Olaudah goes right back to talking about God!

Olaudah writes that “white clerks often abused them [slaves] terribly, especially the women and girls.” [pg. 79] He does not say how they are abused.

After Olaudah receives his freedom he says that “some black women who used to pretend not to notice me began to pay me a lot of attention.” [pg. 111]

Olaudah mentions that some of the leaders in his tribe had more than one wife. He also says that all members of the tribe, including women and children, were trained in war and participated in fights alongside the men.

Olaudah records some of the horrors that slaves underwent.

While I was on this plantation, the owner of it got sick, and I was sent to his house. When I walked into the house, I saw a black woman slave, who was cooking the dinner. She was working cruelly loaded down with strange iron devices.The worst was one on her head. It locked her mouth so tight that she could scarcely speak, and could not eat or drink. Later I found out this horrible thing was called an “iron muzzle.” [pg. 34]

There are more descriptions such as these, and although they are all disgusting, they are not gory.  And, Olaudah admits that “the cruelty wasn’t only to us blacks, but also towards some of the whites themselves. Once I saw a white man flogged so unmercifully with a rope that he died; and they tossed him over the side of the ship like a dead animal.” [pg. 29] The point is, that whenever a cruel man is given unchecked authority over others, abuse is sure to follow.

‘Hell’ is used once. Olaudah says ‘damn’ once and immediately regrets it. “I believed swearing was a sin. Right away my conscience smote me.” [pg. 120]

Conclusion. An excellent read that will give your children a better understanding of the moral/political turmoil of the 18th century.

Wanted Dead or Alive

Title: Wanted Dead or Alive
Author: Ann McGovern
Pages: 62
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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I’ve already overviewed Harriet Tubman’s life in my review of Harriet Tubman, so I will not here enter into another account. I will only note that Harriet Tubman was written for an older audience than “Wanted Dead or Alive” and thus includes more details of Harriet’s life. “Wanted Dead or Alive” also barely touched on Harriet’s life after the war but focuses more on her exciting exploits during it.


Instead of glossing over Harriet’s deep religious sense, Ms. McGovern depicts Harriet as praying and praising God in several different instances.

Lies are told to save lives.

Conclusion. A solid account that will fire your children’s imaginations and give them a greater interest in the effort to end slavery.

Let’s Play Soldier, George Washington!

Title: Let’s Play Soldier, George Washington!
Author: Peter and Connie Roop
Pages: 57
Recommended Ages: 8-12
Star Rating: ★★★★

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Remember Let’s Drive, Henry Ford? Well, Let’s Play Soldier, George Washington! is written by the same authors!

His Life.

When George Washington was born in 1732, no one knew that he would someday be called the father of his country. No one even knew that a new country would be born – but it was, and he was, indeed, a great part of her birth. But before George could ever attend to matters of state, he had a great many other things to deal with.

For example, when George was eleven, his father died. Both of his older brothers had moved away from home to pursue their own careers, so George was the man of the family. Their farm was large and needed lots of money to keep it running. George had to think of some way to help the family! He began practicing to be a surveyor. What he really wanted was to go to England and receive a formal education there, but he knew that was out of the question. So instead, he worked to learn everything that he could right there in Virginia.

His hard work paid off. One day, he met Lord Fairfax, a man who owned several million acres worth of land. Because George was polite, a good rider, and an excellent surveyor, Lord Fairfax asked him to do a survey of his vast estates. George agreed to go.

The journey was hard, but it was good for George. It made him a better surveyor, but also a better woodsman. When the French and Indian War broke out in the fifties, George was helpful as a messenger and also as a scout for the British. Yes, that’s right, for the British. In his first war, George was a Colonel with the British and Americans against the French and Indians. In his second war, George was a General with the Americans and French against the British. Funny how that works, isn’t it?

Anyway, the short of the story is this – George fought and was a successful soldier. The Americans won the war. Then, George became President – he was successful at that, too. In 1799, when he died, George had been successful at many things, but what we remember most is how well he fought for our country during the war – and after it, too.


Let’s Play Soldier, George Washington! brought forth one fact about George Washington’s life that I had never learned about. And that was his relationship with his mother. Apparently, (or at least according to this book), Mary Washington was a strong-minded woman with a violent temper. When George accidentally killed one of her favorite horses (which she had forbidden him to ride), she never forgave him. Although she often threw obstacles in his path (she did not allow him possession of his father’s farm for years after he legally inherited it), George always treated her with respect.

What I thought was a fascinating fact was included on page thirty-three.

George turned twenty-one on February 22, 1753. George had been born on February 11, 1732. But in 1752, the calendars were changed. This is because the old calendar was off by eleven days. Now, George’s birthday was February 22. Some years, when he wanted to, George celebrated his birthday twice! [pgs. 33-35]

After reporting the number of horses that were shot from under him in one battle, the Roops comment, “George Washington was very lucky.” [pg. 50] No mention is made of George Washington’s great faith in the Christian God.

Ten illustrations were included in Let’s Play Soldier, George Washington!, nine of which I thought were exceptionally goofy.

Conclusion. I believe that Let’s Play Soldier, George Washington! is worthwhile despite the foolish illustrations. Its content was serious but easy to understand.