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Check It Out

Courier Article by Carol Banks
Sunday, November 20, 2005

Themes of Tolerance, Family Values Fit the Season

Every year about this time, I feel the need to reread Molly Pilgrim, a wonderfully sensitive picture book with themes of religious tolerance, family values and the Thanksgiving season.

Written by Barbara Cohen, the book tells the story of young Molly, a Russian immigrant to the United States, and her school assignment to make a "pilgrim" doll. Completed by Molly's mother, the doll does not look at all like the "capital P" Pilgrims in Molly's textbook. Rather, the doll looks just like Molly's mother in authentic Russian dress. Wise Mama tells Molly, "I am pilgrim, your Papa is pilgrim, you are pilgrim."

And so, aren't we all?

Here are some recent children's books about other immigrants to the United Statesasome other "lowercase P" pilgrims. Just like Molly and her family.

Squirrel and John Muir by Emily Arnold McCully.

In McCully's 2005 Giverny Award Book (presented for the Best Science Picture Book), we are introduced to Scottish immigrant Muir as a young man in the 1860s, beginning his personal search "to discover laws of nature by which he himself can live free from society's expectations."

His accomplice in this search is Floy Hutchings, the 6-year-old daughter of his employer, James Hutchings, guide and hotelier in California's Yosemite Valley.

No shy violet, Floy is nicknamed Squirrel because "she tore around (the Valley) like a squirrel" and mostly annoyed the hotel's guests. She viewed it as her job.

Despairing of ever taming his wild child, Hutchings just lets Floy be Floy.

Muir, however, with his gentle and knowing ways, introduces Floy to the grandeur that is Yosemite and the complexities of the Valley environment. Snow falling, meadow flowers blooming in the spring, "trees singing in the wind," and tiny insects all came under Muir's scrutiny, and the Valley becomes Floy's open- air classroom.

McCully's watercolor illustrations do ample justice to the sweeping vistas of Yosemite with the final two-page spread truly a majestic rendering.

The Life and Times of Irving Berlin by Jim Whiting.

You might be hard-pressed to name the composer of "Marie From Sunny Italy" or "My Wife's Gone to the Country, Hurrah! Hurrah!," but in all likelihood you would know who wrote the mega-hits "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and "There's No Business Like Show Business."

In truth, they are all the musical creations of another immigrant to American shores: Irving Berlin, born Israel Isidore Beilin.

Allegedly born in 1888 in Siberia, young Izzy came to America with his family after enduring the pogroms in Russia aimed at terrorizing the Jewish populace.

Izzy's father, Moses, worked part time at jobs to support the six Beilin children (the two oldest remained in Russia).

Eventually Izzy left home and worked for the New York Evening Journal, selling papers for a few pennies. Blessed with a good singing voice, he picked up extra money singing in The Bowery at places such as "Suicide Hall" and "The Bucket of Blood." Not for the faint of heart.

From there, composing his own songs to sing was a natural segue.

A typing error on one song credited "I. Berlin" as the composer. Izzy decided to adopt Irving as a new first name, and thus Irving Berlin was born.

Berlin's two greatest musical compositions have helped sustain Americans during some of the darkest days in our history.

To celebrate the 20th anniversary of World War I's end, Berlin remembered a song he once wrote but never used "God Bless America."

He revamped the song, and it became an immediate hit, thanks to the rendition by Kate Smith, "America's songbird."

During World War II, Berlin wrote the music for a Bing Crosby-Fred Astaire movie "Holiday Inn."

The song "White Christmas" in the movie went on to become a musical blockbuster. The Buffalo Courier-Express wrote that "`White Christmas' ... provided a forcible reminder that we are fighting for the right to dream and memories to dream about."

In a tribute to Berlin, fellow composer Jerome Kern said, "Irving Berlin has no `place' in American music. ... Irving Berlin is American music."

Not too bad for a little kid who never really knew his exact birthday or birthplace.

Carol Banks is supervisor of the READ Center, Central Library's children's Department. Contact her at (812) 428-8222. The opinions expressed in this column are personal and do not reflect policies or official recommendations of the library.