Top 100 Children’s Novels #55: All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
Taylor presents an optimistic but authentic view of Jewish immigrant life in New York City at the turn of the last century. The daily adventures of five school aged girls are shown as they dust the house, go to the library and celebrate the rituals of their Jewish faith by lighting Sabbath candles and observing Passover. The book depicts the close bonds of the family and the author makes the characters of a different time engaging and accessible to the reader. The story is loosely based on the author and her sisters’ lives growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. I loved these girls and their story of their lives together. – Christine Kelly
All of a Kind Family is charmingly old-fashioned, but I think it’s still accessible. It’s a funny and moving series about a tight-knit Jewish family that was a memorable part of my childhood. – Jennifer Schultz
Because the joy that the girls had in choosing what to spend a nickel on outweighs most of the excitement I could imagine then or now. It made me crave a dill pickle from the barrel, for goodness sakes. – Pam Coughlan
I don’t even remember how I got the book in the first place. Scholastic Book Fair? Gift from Aunt? Bookstore recommendation? What I do remember is loving this book. I can say that because I remember all the details intricately. The chocolate babies in particular. Man, what I wouldn’t have given for a chocolate baby. And the sequence where one kid wouldn’t eat her food so she had to miss out on all the meals? I found that a strangely satisfying sequence. Breaking the spirit of a naughty kid = awesome in my right thinking little head back then.
The publisher’s description reads, “All-of-a-Kind Family, a ‘Yearling Perennial’ book, tells the heart-warming story of Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie, five sisters who live with their parents in New York City’s Lower East Side at the turn of the century. They share adventures that find them searching for hidden buttons while dusting Mama’s front parlor and visiting with the peddlers in Papa’s shop on rainy days. The five girls enjoy doing everything together, especially when it involves holidays and surprises. But no one could have prepared them for the biggest surprise of all!”
How did it get written? Folks often forget that Taylor wanted to be an actress, and was even a professional dancer in the Martha Graham Company. In the Judaica Book News she said she wasn’t interested in writing for kids until, “my child said to me one day, ‘Mommy, why is it that whenever I read a book about children it is always a Christian child? Why isn’t there a book about a Jewish child?’ Then I remembered that this was the way I used to feel when I was one of the girls. I thought, ‘Somebody ought to write the book–why not me?’ . . . So I sat down and wrote it and felt very good about it.” She didn’t publish it though. Nope. Stuck it in a drawer and let it molder for a while. Then her husband heard about a children’s book contest and submitted it without her knowledge. Woah! Big time surprise then when Follett sent her a letter saying they wanted to publish it. And the rest, as they say, is history.
Writer Meg Wolitzer cited the book as important in Anita Silvey’s Everything I Need to Know I Learned From a Children’s Book. Says Wolitzer, “What this novel has, most of all, is atmosphere, and this has influenced me deeply as a writer ever since. (Atmosphere! I sometimes remind myself when I’m working. Fill up the thing with atmosphere!) Good children’s books give you an early sense of the multiple textures of the world. They remind you that there is, in fact, no single world – but many of them.”
But perhaps my favorite reading of the book was Lizzie Skurnick’s reading of the book in the Fine Lines, Jezebel piece All-Of-A-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtinkiners Would Farshteyn. She makes some brilliant points. “I had forgotten how strictly Taylor hews to the Dickensian model of providing pretty much one event per chapter, preferably something illustratable. What this means is you can successfully call up the entire text by simply listing the chapter titles . . .but, besides Uncle Hyman coming by to eat six-hard boiled eggs and half a loaf of rye spread thickly with butter (uh, DELICIOUS) nothing has ever stuck in my brain quite so much as Mama’s method of getting the girls to do a better job dusting the front room: placing buttons for the girls to find in all the hard-to-find spots. Because I was tortured — TORTURED! — by how once the girls found one button (say, on a table leg) they might leave the rest of the table undusted. (!!!!!!!!)” Oh, go and read the whole thing, for heavens sake. It probably says more insightful things about the book than I could ever fit in here.
- You can find a reader’s guide for the book here.
New York Herald Tribune Book Review said of the book, “Younger girls who like to ask their mothers what it was like when they were eight or nine will enjoy what this mother told her own daughter.”
For the first time, I am unhappy to report that there is a cover of this book out there that I could not find a scan of. Worse, I don’t own the edition myself. I just remember that in the mid to late 80s a paperback edition of this book was published with a sepia toned pseudo-photograph of the family on the cover. It was that cover that lured me in and got me to read historical fiction of my own accord. I was looking forward to seeing it again and I figured that though it didn’t show up in Google last time I conducted this poll surely it would be up now. Not so much. If any of you happen to have a scan of it, please do not hesitate to send it to me. I’d love to add it to this line-up.
And here’s a bit of a booktalk from my buddy, children’s librarian Danielle Kalan:
About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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