All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor
It’s almost harder to write about books that you treasure, and this one would quite certainly make my short list of best chapter books ever. Set in turn-of-the-century New York City, Taylor’s book is based on her own childhood experiences. Her vivid descriptions make it easy even for modern children to imagine what life was like back then.
There are five sisters in the All-of-a-Kind family and as with many old-fashioned novels, they make it seem as though having a big family is the best thing in the world. I was constantly re-evaluating which sister I was most like, perhaps quiet bookish Sarah or musical Ella. It’s a real testament to Taylor’s abilities that the sisters all seem different and yet none seem like a flat caricature.
The quiet everyday adventures of the family serve as the basis for the book. The book opens with one of the great highlights of the girls’ childhood – library day. Sarah has lost her library book and the girls are beside themselves. The expense of the fine is well beyond their family’s means and they fear the worst – that they will no longer be able to borrow books. One of the most memorable chapters is about dusting! Many readers nowadays have no knowledge of or experience with chores, but Mama’s girls had to help out around the house. Mama is not above games and occasional bribery, she hides buttons all around the room she wants dusted to make sure her girls will do the whole room properly. The trips to Papa’s shop to visit with the peddlers or to the markets filled with shops and pushcarts are like visiting another world. Years later I still wish I could try the delicious chocolate babies from the penny-candy store, but most of all, I wish I could get a scoop from Mr. Basch’s open cracker barrel which was filled with a “tantalizing assortment” of broken crackers. Taylor brings the girls’ world to life.
But what makes All-of-a-Kind Family truly special is the way Taylor writes about being Jewish. The holidays are explained with such love and such detail that they become fascinating even to those with no knowledge of Judiasm. This series does so much in the way of sharing traditions. It shows non-Jewish readers that “other” or “different” can be wonderful in their own way, while providing Jewish readers a beautiful celebration of their faith.
Also, check out this Reader’s Companion for more information about Sydney Taylor, her family and what happened when they all grew up. There are also discussion questions at the end.
This is a beautiful picture of life in New York at the turn of the century. The range of personalities of the female characters means that a lot of different girls see a bit of themselves in one of the sisters. It would be great for read alouds and has been quite popular among very strong third grade readers in my class. It’s also one of the best books out there about Jewish characters.
The vocabulary of the book can be old-fashioned petticoat, doily, tenement, peddler, bale, sacking, pompadour, whatnot) and also contains words best know to those with experience with Judaism.
Age Recommendation: Grades 3-6. This was definitely a challenge for strong third grade readers, but enough of them read it and liked it that they requested the school librarian get a copy for the media center!
Racism: Italian is described as “swarthy” and speaks in an exaggerated fashion “mucha rain”, “no gooda for business.” A man is a “Polack”. Peanut bars in the candy shop are called “Indian bars.” Most of the Jewish women in the neighborhood had “bumpy shapes” but not Mama. Many characters are written to show dialect.
Judaism: Throughout the book many Jewish holidays are observed and described, including Yom Kippur, Purim, Succos, Passover and the Sabbath. There are some explanations of traditionally Jewish food such as lox and gefullte fish. Mr. Basch wears a skullcap and speaks only in Yiddish. There are Yiddish phrases sprinkled throughout, but they are translated immediately after their inclusion.
Sex, Nudity, Dating – We learn that the girls must wear three petticoats under their dresses. Men’s flannel drawers and girls’ petticoats are on display at a store. A dress tears and Sarah’s underwear shows (but they are at home). Ella seems to have a little innocent crush on Charlie. Charlie wanted to marry a girl but his parents disapproved and the girl went away. Two adults kiss (it’s sort of romantic, but it’s certainly not racy). Mama has a baby.
Profanity – “heck,”
Death, Violence and Gore – During Purim it is explained that Haman wanted to hang all the Jews, but that instead, he ended up hanged. In the explanation of Passover, Mama tells Gertie that the first-born sons of the Egyptians were killed. Charlie tells about how he was badly injured by firecrackers as a child.
Drugs, Alcohol and Smoking – They drink wine on the Sabbath that Papa has made himself. A man chews tobacco. The Seder means wine for everyone, even the children, although they get very small glasses.
Frightening or Intense Things – The girls come down with Scarlet Fever and must be quarantined. Henny gets lost.