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 House on Walenska Street

Title: The House on Walenska Street
Author: Charlotte Herman
Pages: 78
Recommended Ages: 8 & up
Star Rating: ★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!


“Where is Walenska Street, anyway?” was my question.

The Story.

“Mama, come quick! See what Esther is doing!”

Now that Papa is dead, Mama relies very heavily on Leah. Leah loves the responsibility, but sometimes it can be difficult to control her two younger sisters, Esther and Rose. Especially Esther; she can be so mischievous sometimes.

Another of Leah’s duties is to reply to the letters they receive from their cousins in America. Leah wonders if she will leave her home on Walenska Street and travel to The States to meet her cousins. America is a far way off from Russia, but who can know?

In the meantime, pogroms are beginning again in Leah’s gentle city. Will her family be spared any of their possessions? And will they be forced to take action – perhaps move to America?


Probably the most troubling incident of the story occurs when the butcher’s wife comes to visit Mama. She is a nosy, gossipy woman who Leah thinks looks like one of her husband’s chickens. She fusses at Leah when she opens an umbrella in the house, claiming it will bring bad luck to their family. Mama offers some resistance to the idea, but in the end, to satisfy her visitor, tells Leah to close the umbrella. She does so, but whispers “fat cow” (meaning the butcher’s wife) under her breath. The woman hears her, and in shame and fear, Leah runs away and gets lost in an orchard. She is afraid – the trees look scary – and she thinks that maybe this is the bad luck that the butcher’s wife had warned her against. In the end she returns home and her mother spanks her. I was glad that it was resolved in that way (with punishment being administered).

Esther disobeys her mother and wears a locket which she had told the children not to wear. However, this saves the locket from being stolen, and Mama tells Esther that “for once I am glad you did not listen to your mama.” [pg. 66] A very brief scene, but an annoying one. I can’t stand it when children save the day through disobedience…

On one occasion, Esther very selfishly eats all of the candy which was purchased to be shared amongst the three sisters. She Is not reproved and does not apologize.

Conclusion. A sweet story about siblings working together and a family struggling through difficult times. Purchase your copy here.

Letters From Rifka

Title: Letters From Rifka
Author: Karen Hesse
Pages: 148
Recommended Ages: 12-14
Star Rating: ★★★★

Hi there! As of October 2013, I have upgraded to a new site – The Blithering Bookster – where I have posted all of my old reviews and continue to post new ones. Hoist yourself over to join the fun!


Letters from Rifka is (as you may imagine) a series of letters written by Rifka, a twelve-year old Jewish immigrant, to her beloved cousin, Tovah. While Rifka, her family and friends are fictional, almost all of the events and details of the story actually befell Mrs. Hesse’s great-aunt Lucy who, like Rifka in the story, immigrated from Russia to America during Lenin’s regime.

The Story.

Although Jews, Rifka and her family have lived a tolerable life in Russia – true, three of Rifka’s older brothers immigrated to America to escape joining the Russian army, but that was so long ago that Rifka never even met them and certainly doesn’t miss them. But now the army is coming after Saul, demanding that he join their brutish forces. There is only one thing that Rifka and her family can do: flee. But they have no immigration papers, and the only other way to leave is illegally……

The Russians stringently search each train, yet Rifka and her family manage to bribe and train-hop their way through Ukraine and Poland, where the lethal disease typhus halts their progress. After recovering from it, Rifka and her family press forward to Warsaw where they must be examined one last time for disease before they will be allowed to cross over to America. Rifka is joyous, hopeful, thrilled that they are at last to begin their new lives in America. But a horrible decision is made. Rifka will not be allowed to sail to America. Rifka has contracted ringworm.

Rifka and her family face a devastating decision. Should they all wait? Or should the rest of Rifka’s family sail to America, establish a home, and begin to earn much-needed money?


Rifka is a strong girl, a thinking girl. She adapts to new circumstances, always seeking the furtherance of her family’s goals. She takes care of herself well during her stay in Warsaw, not becoming ‘independent’, but entirely self-governing.

I particularly liked Rifka’s relationship with Ilya, a Russian peasant boy. Although the Russians were her oppressors, Rifka takes care of Ilya, giving him a portion of her food to satisfy his hunger, and providing him with maternal love. She also takes a Polish baby under her wing, tending to it and caring for it at the Ellis Island hospital.


Under September 3, 1919, Rifka and her mother are strip-searched by a Polish doctor. Rifka writes that he took a longer time examining her mother, but it is not implied that he took any advantage of either of them.

Under November 27, 1919, Rifka writes of her mother,

“I was afraid to tell her the truth, Tovah. To tell her I wanted only to find a quiet corner, where I could open our Pushkin. She did not like your teaching me Pushkin in Berdichev. If Mama had her way, I would know how to cook, and sew, and keep the Sabbath. That is all.”

While this paragraph is entirely disrespectful, the rest of the book makes it clear that Rifka does love her mother; she is devastated at the necessity of being parted from her in Warsaw, and when they are reunited Rifka writes, “I was so happy I thought my heart had broken open like an egg.”

Under November 30, 1919, Rifka writes that her mother yelled at her. Admittedly, Rifka had just done something quite stupid.

Under February 25, 1920, Rifka writes

“[Sister Katrina] taught me a prayer to say in my head when I need to scratch. I think saying the prayer is supposed to keep my mind off the itching. I am not sure it is right, though, for a Jew to say Catholic prayers. I say a Hebrew prayer instead.”

Later on in the same letter, Rifka reports, “Sometimes I even say Sister Katrina’s prayer, even if it is for Catholics. I hope that does not make things worse for me.”

Under September 19, 1920, Rifka writes that Pieter, a young sailor, kissed her. Nothing else occurs between them.

Under October 14, 1920, Rifka writes,

“I stepped closer to the workmen. One of them used English words I hadn’t heard before. I don’t think they were words Mama would want me to learn, but still I was curious.”

Rifka does not write what the words were.

Under October 9, 1920, Rifka is shocked to learn that her parents are now working on the Sabbath.

Throughout the story there is a recurring tension between Rifka and her brother Saul. This is interspersed by a few fond feelings between them and the generous nursing of Rifka by Saul when she becomes ill with typhus. At the end of the book they are getting along with one another.

Conclusion. The large number of cautions I have listed may make you wary of this book, but I would encourage you to give it a try. It does have mature elements, but these are ‘exceptions’ rather than the rule of the story. It is an engaging tale for discerning readers. Purchase a copy of it here.