Classic MG Discussion: All-of-a-Kind Family

July 25, 2014 2014, classics, middle grade, readalong, Wendy 37

all of a kind family

Hello, friends! Welcome to our Classic YA/MG Readalong Discussion. This month we’re chatting about All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor, the first book in a series about five sisters who grow up in a poor, predominantly Jewish neighborhood in the early 1900s.

Looks like it’s just me this month, so I thought I’d just talk about the things I love about it, as well as general observations and questions. Would love to chat with you all in the comments!

vine-divider-finalI have very little interest in history as far as facts and figures go, but I am fascinated by how people live. Books like All-of-a-Kind Family stay with me because they bring to life specific time periods in our history in such a vivid way, which also speaks to the impact that the books we read as children can have on us. I think the books I read in my formative years also helped to shape the person I’ve become. The ideals set forth here, of kindness and good work ethic and justice and respectfulness and humility, are things I still aspire to.

But before we get into all that, this book is just so much FUN as well! Reading about the girls’ traipsing around in their father’s junk store, eating sandwiches out of shoe boxes on Coney Island, dressing up in rags and taking Purim baskets to friends and neighbors, and so many other wonderful anecdotes that were apparently based on the author’s own childhood. While these are everyday stories, I love how the sisters approached every day with the spirit of adventure, and how they were so close to each other. My sisters were much older than I was, so I always longed to have someone to whisper with at night or to share in my woes.

It’s also such a great book for book lovers. I’ve mentioned before how I realized how precious books can be from AOAKF, and I think it’s interesting to note how much importance is placed on education and literature and art and self-improvement. Even though money was scarce, the girls still had piano lessons, and they went to the library every week. I love the chapter when the girls browse through the piles and piles of books brought to their papa’s store–when he tells them they may keep them all, their incredulity at their good fortune is so humbling to see. You don’t see a lot of books written these days that feature kids who aren’t solidly middle class (or occasionally wealthy), either. Every time I read this series, I’m so touched by how Papa at first is dismayed by his daughters’ frivolous birthday gift, but then shakes himself out of it when he sees their disappointment–especially contrasted with the earlier chapters when you’re told how he worked in an unheated basement to bind rags to make a living for his family, and how his hands got so cracked from the cold he could never get the dirt out of them. It’s sobering to read about the worry and sacrifices of the immigrant experience, particularly when four of the girls have scarlet fever–medicine must have been very costly, and it’s pretty miraculous that they all came through without any problems. (It wasn’t until later that antibiotics were more commonly used.)

Despite these obstacles, this dear family embraced their lives with so much joy. Everything I know about Jewish customs and culture I learned from this series–the rituals performed for the holidays are described as “lovely” and “peaceful,” and you really do feel a sense of reverence for this spirituality, and there’s such comfort and beauty in this community and family as well. It’s exhausting to read about the amount of work Mama has to do to run her household, however, particularly before a holiday! And of course, the food. THE FOOD! From the fresh rolls with butter for the girls’ after-school snack to Charlie’s potato kugel to Teiglech to juicy fat pickles to spicy chick peas served piping hot in a paper cone, there is so much to make your mouth water. My favorite chapter is, of course, the one in which naughty Gertie and Charlotte sneak candy and crackers into their bed and eat them slowly, deliciously, well after they should be sleeping.

I’ve read, in passing, a few criticisms of the book that talk about how Papa places such importance upon having a son, and how baby Charlie’s arrival seemed to eclipse other events. I understand how that could be interpreted, but I don’t think that’s entirely fair. Passing on the family name was something that was still very important at that time, and I would guess that having a son who could work and help support the family was also something Papa was thinking of. I’ve also read that Orthodox texts have referenced the desirability of having at least one child of each gender, though I don’t know how accurate that is? In any case, I think his love and devotion to his wife and daughters are clear. It’s more interesting to me to marvel at this enormous family, which can perhaps be attributed to religious views on contraception…? See, we can speculate about this stuff as adults because we can place these things in context–but the wondering about things not explicitly stated drives me a little crazy!

Much like Mary Poppins‘ infamous “Bad Tuesday” chapter, I love the “Sarah in Trouble” chapter. We’ve all felt peculiarly stubborn and unwilling to give in at times, without even knowing why–and knowing that Sarah was “Sydney” gives a little extra emphasis to why her stories are particularly well done, though all the characters are memorable and dear. I also love how warm and all these relationships are. The sisters are so enviably close, the parents are busy but a huge part of their children’s lives, and of course, we get a lovely surprise of a romance with Charlie as well.

All right, so tell me! Did you enjoy All-of-a-Kind Family? Will you read the sequels? Who’s your favorite character? WHAT CANDY WOULD YOU BE EATING IN BED LATE AT NIGHT? Those silly girls and their crackers, no wonder they got caught.

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Further Reading:

  • The rest of the series, long out of print, has finally been reissued this year thanks to Lizzie Skurnick Books, beginning with All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown. It’s one of the rare series that brings children into adulthood, and you get to see Ella in particular blossom into a young woman during an interesting period in history.
  • The story of All-of-a-Kind Family‘s unlikely journey to publication, as well as some background info on the author, can be found here.
  • The wonderful author Laurel Snyder recommends middle grade books featuring Jewish characters or themes, and says “Let me give All-of-a-Kind Family its due, since the series was actually pretty important in the history of Jewish kidlit as a genre. It was the first (non-Biblical) story with Jewish characters that became popular with readers from all different backgrounds. It kind of set the tone for our current embrace of multicultural literature!” Side note: I would dearly love to see an All-of-a-Kind Family cookbook someday, and Laurel would be the perfect person to write it. I’ve had some interesting discussions with her on Twitter about food in books, both for the sheer enjoyment of it and for its cultural and historical meaning.

If you’re as fascinated as I am everyday stories of growing up in America during periods that shape our history (that is, ones not centered specifically around a major historical event or theme but show you what it was like to be a child during that era), I’d strongly recommend:

  • The Little House series (mid 1800s, middle grade, pioneer/prairie life, Wisconsin, Kansas, upstate New York, Minnesota, South Dakota)
  • The Betsy-Tacy series (late 1800s – early 1900s, middle grade, Minnesota)
  • The Great Brain series (late 1800s, middle grade, boys in Utah)
  • The Moffats series (pre-World War I, middle grade, Connecticut)
  • The Ginnie and Geneva series and Cathy series (mid 20th century, middle grade, small town Connecticut)
  • Most Beverly Cleary books (mid 20th century, middle grade/young adult, mostly Oregon)
  • Katie John series (1970s?, middle grade, small town Missouri)

If you have suggestions for other books like this, please share them! All of these were written by authors who lived during that time, so there’s an immediacy and authenticity to them that’s impossible if modern-day writers were to write about those time periods today. It doesn’t seem as though as many readers find their way to these books any more, but they’re enduring classics for good reason.

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August Discussion Book!

Title: A Tree Grows in Brooklyn
Author: Betty Smith
Amazon Links: Kindle ebook
Discussion Date: Friday, August 29th
Hashtag: #tmgreadalong

atreegrowsinbrooklyncoverThe beloved American classic about a young girl’s coming-of-age at the turn of the century, Betty Smith’s A Tree Grows in Brooklyn is a poignant and moving tale filled with compassion and cruelty, laughter and heartache, crowded with life and people and incident.

The story of young, sensitive, and idealistic Francie Nolan and her bittersweet formative years in the slums of Williamsburg has enchanted and inspired millions of readers for more than sixty years. By turns overwhelming, sublime, heartbreaking, and uplifting, the daily experiences of the unforgettable Nolans are raw with honesty and tenderly threaded with family connectedness — in a work of literary art that brilliantly captures a unique time and place as well as incredibly rich moments of universal experience.

Over a hundred people chose this book the last time we took a poll, so hopefully we’ll have a great discussion next month! This is the longest book we’ve tackled yet (so start early!), and interestingly, it takes place around the same time period and location as All-of-a-Kind Family. Should be interesting to compare the two.

If you’d like to get a jump on September’s discussion, we’ll be reading Harriet the Spy! A lot of readers voted for this title last spring, and since it’s Harriet’s 50th Anniversary this year, it seems like good timing.

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37 Responses to “Classic MG Discussion: All-of-a-Kind Family”

  1. Bridget

    I just discovered your blog, so I’m coming in late to this discussion, but I had to thank you for posting this! These were among my very favorites when I was little. I loved them so much that I saved my battered paperback copies to share with any potential future children of my own. It’s good to know I’m not alone!

    I also want to give a shout out for “The Saturdays” series about the Melendy family (not from the same era–they’re set in 1940’s New York–but just as closely observed from an insider POV). The author was Elizabeth Enright.

    • Jenn Greiving

      Yes to the Melendys! I want a Cuffy in my house, too. And a four-story mistake house.

      I loved re-visiting this series. It was one of my favorites growing up just because I love realistic, historic portrayals of girls growing up: Daddy-Long-Legs, The Saturdays, Little House books, etc. I also loved those Dear America books – when they first came out, they were a little juvenile for me but I liked the diary/epistolary writing style.

      My modern-day equivalent is the Penderwicks series. I just re-read the first book and it’s just like eating a satisfying, home-cooked meal. Everything works out, there’s talk about food, and there’s a happy family.

  2. Christina R.

    What a wonderful idea, to have MG historical books that really immerse readers in the world, so they’re learning about history by living it!!

    Lovely post :)

    • Wendy Darling

      Well, the author lived through this time, so it came naturally to her! Apparently she used to tell her daughter stories about growing up with her sisters every night when she tucked her into bed, and then started writing down stories. It was her husband, unbeknownst to her, who sent her writing in to a publisher, though.

  3. E

    I gobbled this book up very quickly – it’s a short snappy read. Not one that I had read before, but I really enjoyed it. Like you, Wendy, I like sort of mundane stories about children’s lives in periods of history. I liked history at school, but really struggled to get to grips with all the political stuff from text books etc – I much prefer reading fiction that lets you know how ordinary people lived. Even now it taught me quite a lot about Jewish family life – I’m still learning!

    (On a separate note, you’ve reminded me how much I love The Little House books by Laura Ingalls – wish we were reading those!)

    My favourite chapter was either the Sarah in Trouble chapter, or possibly the first one with the lost library book. As you said, it’s refreshing to see non-middle-class (or wealthy) families; the huge amount of money that book would’ve cost them.

    I am tempted to read the rest, but my reading list is rather out of control, so it’ll have to wait. But I do want to know how the family changes with the arrival of a baby boy.

    Thanks for introducing this to me; now I’m off to buy the next one!
    E recently posted…The Midnight Garden: MG Discussion

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh good, I’m glad you enjoy these kinds of everyday stories, too! I wasn’t sure how modern adult readers would respond to AOAKF–nearly every realistic fiction read seems to be ABOUT something these days, if you know what I mean, but I find such comfort and pleasure in books that are just snapshots of a child growing up, too. There’s so much drama and discovery in childhood already, even without having to find your lost parents or battling dragons or whatever. (I’m not a fan of politics, either–I grew up in the Washington, DC area and couldn’t be less interested in that whole machine. People trump politics for me every single time.)

      I’m so, so happy to hear you enjoyed AOAKF! I love that lost library book chapter as well. In addition to being so charming, it also establishes character and setting so nicely at the beginning of the book. I loved the library lady’s story arc–you don’t learn too much about her or Charlie, but it was just enough romance that was appropriate for that age level. When you do get to the later books, the stories still center around the girls, even with baby Charlie in the picture. It’s really interesting to see how the family copes as the neighborhoods around them change, and as the world changes, too.

      I look forward to reading your post about the book–will definitely stop by later this week!

    • Wendy Darling

      OH, and Laura Ingalls Wilder. I am a huge, huge Laura fan and actually reread those every year, have even done a couple of 1:1 readalongs with friends. (Did you see that I posted about my trip to Almanzo Wilder’s farm last year? http://www.themidnightgarden.net/2013/07/a-visit-to-almanzo-wilders-farm.html) I hesitated about bringing that one up because everyone’s probably sick of hearing me talk about Laura Laura Laura, hah. But maybe we should do it! I can put it to a vote to gauge interest.

      If this happened, do you think we should read the first one, or should we do FARMER BOY or something like THE LONG WINTER?

      • E

        Amazing you went to the Wilder’s Farm!! Very jealous, maybe I need to come to America ;)

        And DEFINITELY put her books on for voting – I would’ve suggested it but I thought you were decided for the rest of the year. My personal favourite is On the Banks of Plum Creek or a The along Winter, but for people who are reading them for the first time, we should probably let them read the first one first…

        Thank you again for replying to my comments!
        E recently posted…The Midnight Garden: MG Discussion

        • E

          PS I’m currently living very close to The Hundred Acre Wood… Magical place. Maybe we should swap places for a bit and explore literary places!
          E recently posted…The Bethlem Sun Fayre

  4. Emma L

    Unfortunately I was unable to download an ebook version of this book so was unable to take part in this read along, which was very disappointing! I managed to read a few pages from a preview on Amazon and I really enjoyed even those few pages.

    Obviously, as I didn’t read the book I don’t know who papa’s desire for a boy is portrayed, but I find it interesting that it is seen as an issue. My mum always desperately wanted girls and really, really didn’t want boys (of course she would have loved her child if she had had a boy though ). And , interestingly enough, I do remember my mum saying that she thought her total bias for having a girl may have had something to do with the fact she felt undervalued in her family as a girl, in comparison to her brother, and this has really affected her well into adulthood; for her having girls was like a rebellion against her families gender bias towards her brother. Funnily enough, mum’s bias towards girls has had an affect on me in that I worry that if I have a boy, she won’t love him or want to be around him as much as my sister’s little girl. Given the ongoing affects of gender bias (foe either a girl or boy) through the generations and the resultant effect on the subsequent generation, I wonder if my mum’s desire for girls would be seen as troublesome in society as Papa’s desire for a boy and if we, as enfranchised women, are overly sensitive to those sentiments that boys were important in those days.

    • Wendy Darling

      Aw, I’m sorry you weren’t able to get the ebook! Territory restrictions are so frustrating. It looks like The Book Depository does carry the series, though, in case you are interested in picking it up down the road: http://www.bookdepository.com/All-kind-Family-Sydney-Taylor/9780440400592

      I wonder if …we, as enfranchised women, are overly sensitive to those sentiments that boys were important in those days.

      I think so. I mean, I think it’s important to read critically and to be aware of prejudice in whatever form we might come across it, but I think the gender bias criticism is a little out of proportion when I’ve seen it.

      That’s so interesting to hear about your mother’s feeling undervalued as a girl and (perhaps) therefore wanting girls herself. I think it’s natural to seek a sense of kinship with your children, and if there was something lacking in your own relationship with your parents, it’s no surprise that you’d seek a sense of closeness however you could. In the book, Papa does mention specifically (to himself or to another adult, he never says this to the girls) that it would be wonderful to have a son in part because as the sole man in a household of six women, it sometimes got lonely for him. Totally understandable in my eyes.

      Thank you so much for sharing that with us! It’s fascinating to me how family dynamics can carry on through generations.

  5. kindlemom1

    History has always been one of my most favorite subjects and even now I love a good well written historical. This sounds wonderful and like something that I think the history buff in me would really enjoy. :) Thanks so much for all the insight into this series and your thoughts on it. :)
    kindlemom1 recently posted…Review: Feral by Holly Schindler

    • Wendy Darling

      As a history fan, this sounds like a book that you’ll enjoy then! I have trouble with historicals written by contemporary authors sometimes, but the chances that I’ll enjoy a book are much higher when the author has first hand knowledge of that time period. I’m glad we’ve persuaded you to give this one a chance sometime–please come back and let me know how you liked it if you think of it. :)

  6. Layla A

    Oh!! I remember reading this as a child and LOVING IT! (Especially all of the food.) I didn’t join in on the re-read, but I’m so glad you all chose to do it – I’d totally forgotten all about this book and am now having happy happy memories about it (the button hiding game!).
    Layla A recently posted…Liv, Forever

    • Wendy Darling

      Layla! I know so few people who were familiar with this series, but I’m glad you love it, too. She was such a clever Mama to think of the button game, and to change it up once they’d all had a chance to do it for the first time. The food is just glorious, I wish I had a platter of those honey-soaked treats right this minute.

      I sent you an email a couple of weeks ago, by the way…not sure if you got it?

      • Layla A

        I know! I can’t believe I’d forgotten it! I can’t remember if I read more of the series or not. It’s possible. I also have no idea how this ended up in my book collection as a middle-schooler – I suspect the excellent independent kids’ bookstore (which unfortunately closed in the late ’90s, alas).

        No, I didn’t get your email – I’m sorry! If it wouldn’t be too much of a bother, you could resend it? (My email is aldousany at gmail dot com.)
        Layla A recently posted…Liv, Forever

    • Layla A

      Also, I just saw that you mentioned the Betsy-Tacy series by Maud Hart Lovelace! Can’t believe I missed that before. That was one of my favorite series growing up. I think everything I know about turn-of-the-century America has been gleaned from Betsy-Tacy and also, like, The Carousel of Progress at DisneyWorld. ;)
      Layla A recently posted…Liv, Forever

      • Wendy Darling

        Funnily enough, I had only the vaguest memory of Betsy-Tacy from childhood, so it was almost brand new to me when I bought them for myself right out of college! I was surprised that the earlier books were so decidedly young/juvenile, so while I liked them just fine at that point, it wasn’t until my rereading of the books a year or so ago that I really fell in love all over again. In later years, I thought Betsy’s separation from her parents as far as her religion goes was particularly interesting, and it was great fun to read about radiant Betsy Ray as a young woman. There’s something so satisfying about seeing what happened to some of these characters we love so dearly, that’s definitely rarer now.

        I think partly why I’m still so interested in early 1900s (America and England) is because of these books I read as a child. Reading about these children who lived long ago is the closest you can come to stepping into another time. I bet if there were more books chronicling other periods in history (with this first-hand knowledge/authenticity), I’d be more interested in other periods, too.

        • Layla A

          My mom used to read Betsy-Tacy to us when we were young; I do also like that the books span multiple reading levels (& what other series can you say that of? Where else can you start reading about a character in children’s lit that then matures as you mature as a reader? Maybe the Laura Ingalls Wilder books are a bit like that; that’s the only thing that comes to mind at the moment).

          I also remember liking that there’s some discussion of class and race, even in the earlier books (my family is Middle Eastern, and I remember being particularly struck by the inclusion of like … Little Syria, I think? in one of them). And also, Betsy and Tacy and Tib’s friendship is a thing I love a lot – both insofar as it models how friendships adapt to change but also because their friendship is so central to the series (even when they’re all married). And the series as a whole does a good job, I think, of being honest about how difficult all relationships (romantic and otherwise) are: when Tib moves away, when they form a sorority in high school, how Betsy’s writing affects her relationships – learning how to be a person is hard. Sigh. Anyway. I love these books! and now I want to re-read them.

          Also, the illustrations were so wonderful!
          Layla A recently posted…Me: Stories of My Life

  7. Brenda

    What a treat AOAKF was reading this month. It was wonderful reading a book that taught me so much about the Jewish culture, its traditions and beliefs. Then to have it resonate with my own life was such a great trip down memory lane, I wrote about some of them in my review. I think there are still plenty of dad’s out there that hope for a boy to carry on the family name, I always thought my own felt the same way living with all us women. We all wondered how he would have been with just one boy in the fold. So I wasn’t really bothered with it in the story. I loved the Librarian and how reading and going to the library were so important to the girls. Just so beautiful and thank you once again for selecting it. And YEAH, a book I’ve read and get to re-read again! (Harriet the Spy).
    Brenda recently posted…Review All-of-a-Kind Family by Sydney Taylor

    • Wendy Darling

      Brenda, I’m overjoyed that you liked this! I’m smiling at you very hard from California. :)

      I think there’s a lot to be said for the desire to see your family name live on, especially in this case, in which Papa emigrated from another country and was likely anxious to hold onto his roots. There’s so much love in the way his story arc is written, I haven’t any doubt in the world that he cared deeply about his whole family, and while he may have looked on the birth of his son as a blessing, if that hadn’t happened, I’m sure he would not have considered it a curse.

      I’m glad you’re excited about HARRIET, too! And that you’re familiar with it! She is such a great character, and it’s going to be so much fun to visit with her again. I’ll have to show you all a photo of the Harriet paper doll that my friend drew for me.

      Look forward to reading your review of AOAKF! Thanks so much for linking to it, I’ll be by to visit next week. Have a lovely weekend!

  8. Joy (Joyousreads)

    I’m feeling a lot guilty for not participating in your read alongs. I feel like I’m missing some fantastic books that I would, otherwise miss had it not been mentioned on your blog.

    This one is definitely one of them. I like reading books that inspire me to be a better person – kinder, with more perseverance, and also lessons about culture.

    I can understand why placing so much importance on the birth of a boy (as opposed to a girl) is such a big deal in our times, but i think that we must remember that when we read these books, they are essentially historical. Things were different then. I don’t think it would bother me as much. But…that’s just me though. :)

    Thanks for another gem.
    Joy (Joyousreads) recently posted…Bird Box by Josh Malerman

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh, I feel as though you should be reading EVERYTHING we recommend on the blog. :D I do hope you’ll give this one a try sometime! I feel like kind of a square when I say that I like children’s books that show warm family relationships or that show strength of character, but it’s true–as long as it’s not done in a preachy, heavy-handed way, I loved that as a child and I love it still as an adult. The cultural stuff is woven into the story beautifully, Joy–everything is shown matter-of-factly, but with such beauty. I still want someone to invite me to Sabbath Dinner sometime. *sigh*

      Papa’s wanting a boy didn’t bother me, either–it’s alluded to several times the reasons why, and he loves and cherishes his daughters and his wife for sure. (In later books, there’s no change to that either.) People still desire sons to this day, so I don’t see any issue with its inclusion in the book. Maybe because it was sort of positioned as the “climax” of the story in the last chapter? Who knows.

  9. Carina Olsen

    Surprise romance? Ohh, that sounds good, lol. You keep reading all these classic books. And I have not heard of any of them :( Damn living in Norway, hih. But oh. This middle grade book sounds awesome :D Thank you so much for sharing Wendy. <3 I'm so glad you loved it. It sounds like a sweet book :)
    Carina Olsen recently posted…Review: The Vault of Dreamers by Caragh M. O’Brien

    • Wendy Darling

      Oh, the romance here is so lovely! And perfectly appropriate for a middle grade book. When I read this as a kid, I was entranced by Ella’s infatuation with Charlie, I understood and related to it so well.

      Maybe you can get the ebooks online, or order them? They’re really lovely! Thanks for stopping by, Carina.

  10. Lory @ Emerald City Book Review

    This was the first readalong book so far that I had actually never read, and I’m very glad I did. I loved all the aspects you mentioned — the food, the festivals, the family — and I’m sure I’ll be reading the sequels soon. The treatment of gender roles didn’t bother me as they were in accord with the time and culture. There’s a place for remembering how things were, as well as how we would like them to be!
    Lory @ Emerald City Book Review recently posted…Five of a Kind: All-of-a-Kind Family

    • Wendy Darling

      Hooray! I’ve always felt a little sad that this series isn’t more well known (even though there’s a children’s book award named after her), so it makes my little heart swell to hear that you enjoyed this as a new reader. I’m glad to hear you’ll try out the sequels sometime, too–they are consistently wonderful, and there are many more memorable chapters to come.

      The treatment of gender roles didn’t bother me as they were in accord with the time and culture. There’s a place for remembering how things were, as well as how we would like them to be!

      I agree with this completely. After our Anne discussion, I wondered whether people would be more upset by the way gender roles were approached in this book, but I think there’s tremendous value in showing how things were as well, especially given that these were written a long time ago, by someone who lived through that period, and who based them on her own life. I don’t think we learn anything if all our reading material is sanitized so that there isn’t any trace of our human history with prejudice.

  11. Mary @ BookSwarm

    I don’t think I’ve ever heard of this story but it sounds like I need to read it! I poured over my mother’s Betsy-Tacy books, adored The Great Brain and Little House — all those books where the world was just so different than mine but still reality for whatever time period they were set in. Even though I’d never want to actually live their lives, there’s just something so solid and interesting about the world in which they grew up. Love that there’s such joy in the little pleasures of life.
    Mary @ BookSwarm recently posted…Mini Swarms: Hot and cold romances

    • Wendy Darling

      If you liked Betsy-Tacy (yay! I still love the chapter where Betsy and Joe both give each other the same book for Christmas, even though they’re quarrelling) and Little House and The Great Brain (you are the only person I really know who’s read those! YOU MAKE ME SO HAPPY.), I’m quite certain you’ll love these!

      I love that when you read these books, you’re taken back to a simpler, less frantic time. I’m a modern, liberated woman, but I do enjoy the fact that the focus is also on family and friendship and the joys of growing up and discovering the world and the people in it, you know? Without cynicism or attempts to be so very clever.

  12. Pili

    When we talk about diversity in YA right now we ought to remember that there have been books that have talked about different classes and different cultures that we ought to keep in mind! This one with its easy descriptions of Jewish customs and celebrations weaved into the every life of a family that had to make their pennies count is a book that can be relevant at any point, and even to me now at this days and age, has taught me quite a few things that I didn’t know about Jewish holidays and traditions! I also loved how it portrayed the relationship of the family with their gentile friends and how there was no message of superiority or censorship of the religious difference, that is a very relevant message that ought to be considered more nowadays!

    I have to say I did have a few tiny issues with the “learning to be good housewives” and Papa’s wish for a boy, but given the time period this book was set in, I think it can be considered somewhat progressive on other aspects as it focused a lot on literacy and love for learning and books for the girls, even in the context of a poor family. None of that “working to earn their bread, no books nonsese, what good would they do to you” mentality that could have otherwise been expected, give how little money the family had. I did wonder at how wise having 5 girls and a new baby coming was in their economic situation, but I’m sure contraceptives were not that usual back then, and I also wondered at the religious reason behind that, if there was.

    I adored how entertaining each chapter exploring a little something from every day life was, I adored the visit to the library and felt such a kinship with their excitement and Sarah’s worry for having lost the book! To this day I still have a recurring nightmare of losing a book and having to go to the library and explain that, and it’s been YEARS since I last borrowed a book! During my childhood going to the district library was a favourite thing to do, it was quite close to home and I looooved spending time browing the shelves choosing my next read!

    I loooooved the girl’s visit to the shop and trying to choose the perfect candy to buy with their pennies to eat at night! I so could visualize the shop with all the candy! It was so much fun to read about the two of them making such a game of eating the candy and making it last!

    Of all the sisters I felt a bigger kinship with Sarah, since she’s the one that ends up feeling stubborn and refusing to eat her soup, and I loved how the story protrayed it from both the child feeling how stupid it was but how she could not back down and from the mother feeling bad about it but knowing it is an important lesson that you couldn’t give up on! My mother had a very similar rule, whatever was for lunch or dinner was the only option and you had to eat it, maybe not all, but you had to eat it, and if you didn’t, it’d be waiting for you as your next meal! I remember once refusing to eat my lentils for lunch, and having to eat them lumpy and re-heated for dinner was quite a lesson in itself!

    I’m extremely glad that I decided to join you ladies on these classics read-alongs, I’m discovering such gems! I wonder if I missed them back then or they might not have been available translated in my time… Anyways, I’m happy to be reading them now, better late than never! I will be joining monthy in the rest of the year for sure! Already bought August & September books!! =D

    P.S.: Thank you soooooo much for posting this discussion early, Wendy!! =D
    Pili recently posted…First Chapter, First Paragraph #4: Forecast by Rinda Elliott!!

    • Wendy Darling

      You’re right, diversity should include socio-economic differences as well. We get so much of the same solidly middle class portrayal in most YA/MG lit that’s published now that I especially appreciate it when you find a perspective that’s different, especially for books that aren’t “just” about trying to get out of that environment. I am actually really interested in portrayals of class differences anyway, but you don’t see a lot of it in books with American settings. Understandably so, I guess.

      There are a lot of things in this book that are still relevant to me, too–really, the only thing that seems outdated thematically are the things we’ve talked about with Papa and the importance of sons, and yes, the focus on being housewives, too. That’s a good point re: how the Jewish religion, while a major and important part of this book, was not portrayed in a heavy-handed, superior way to the life choices of the gentiles, either. You saw that everyone judged and accepted each person for their own worth, and how friendship extended across all kinds of barriers. Circling back to the housewives thing–if you decide to read the later books, Ella’s path is definitely not common. As hinted in this book, she has a fine, fine voice and ultimately has to decide whether to pursue her dreams of becoming a singer. I’m sure you can find problematic feminist issues if you are looking for them, but as you said, the book also shows very progressive attitudes re: women in other ways. (I love hearing that library trips were important in your childhood–that was my favorite outing, too! I don’t think I got to go every week, though.) That was a time of great change anyway, and the historical context–as well as the author’s own experiences that shaped the books–are important to remember.

      My goodness, yes! How I was awed by the authority of librarians as a child, too. Actually, by teachers as well. I remember finally having a conversation with my best friend in sixth grade, that we were so scared about not hearing the recess bell and coming in on time or something, and suddenly realizing–but what would they DO, really, if you didn’t obey? It seems so scary as a child, but I think that’s partially having parents who raised us to be obedient and respectful of your elders. It only took one look to correct any sort of hooliganism in my behavior. My mother was like yours, and like Mama–she was extremely kind, but suffered absolutely no nonsense when it came to mealtime or being undisciplined in public and so on! I can see that’s shaped who I am as well in certain ways.

      Sarah’s definitely the one I identify with most, too–it’s natural since she’s the stand-in for the author. I love that it was Sarah, the one who was usually so good, who had that awful day, and that her sisters understood her feelings, even if they (and she) didn’t entirely understand why.

      I want to visit Mr. Pincus’ shop and that candy shop so badly! And that market “choked” with people and pushcarts and OH SO MANY THINGS TO EAT. I would eat until I burst.

      Thank you so much for joining us on these readalongs, Pili! (How many have you read so far? All of them?) I’m so glad you’ve enjoyed the ones you’ve read, too–there are so many lovely classics that deserve attention, and it makes me unspeakably happy to be sharing books I love so much with friends. I’m so glad you’ve been able to find everything in Spain, too! I’m having such a good time reading these and discussing them with everyone, even more fun than I thought I would.

      Yaaaaay for joining us for BROOKLYN and HARRIET and beyond. :) Wow, I did not think this through though, because the latter is also set in New York! Uh-oh. Well, Harriet’s family is actually quite wealthy, so that will be a nice change, hah. I’ll have to make sure whatever we read in October isn’t set in New York again though, or else people will start to wonder.

      And of course! We kind of experiment with different times posting anyway, but I couldn’t let this go a whole weekend without hearing what you had to say about the book. I’m thrilled, so thrilled, that you loved it. <3

      • Pili

        I am quite curious now to see how the story continues, so I’ll probably be reading the other books as well!

        I think I only joined with A Wrinkle In Time and then The Westing Game, but I’m thrilled to continue from now on, no matter how busy my review pile might get! These stories have re-awaken my love for middle grade and I find them quite a refreshing change in my reading pile!!

        Hehehe, that’s quite a coincidence that three books in a row will be set in New York, but since it’s such a big city and it’s always been one of the most mixed up culturally I’m sure each of the three books will provide a very different view of it!

        When I was younger I got to go to the library once a week too because my mother would go with me, even if it was really quite close, but once I turned 12, I was FINALLY allowed to go on my own and would go to get a new book as soon as I was done with the previous one, if I didn’t have too much homework or finals to study for!

        I will now be signing off for the weekend, and looking forward to reading all the books in my pile!! ;)
        Pili recently posted…Friday Reads: Haze by Paula Weston!!!

        • Wendy Darling

          Oh, I hope you do continue with the series! It’s really lovely, and everything you love about the first book continues on through the rest of the series as well. Plus, they’re quick reads.

          It seems like you’ve been with us forever, but 3 books out of 6 is still wonderful! I’m so glad you’re enjoying the books. They’ve made me appreciate middle grade all over again as well. As much as I enjoy YA, when I love middle grade, I REALLY love it in a way that’s…purer and fiercer than YA. Maybe because I’m letting myself enjoy the books just for the sake of enjoying them, instead of picking things apart with such a critical eye.

          Yeah, E (who’s joined us on a few of the previous books) was asking when we’d do another non-US set book, and I’d like to do Mary Poppins sometime–and The Secret Garden next spring, maybe, if we continue the series. Harriet is set in Manhattan, though, and feels very different from AOAKF (and, I’m guessing, BROOKLYN since I’ve not read it yet) because she is VERY sarcastic and grumpy, so I don’t think it’ll be too much of a bore for those who read all three.

          Have a wonderful, wonderful weekend away, Pili! I look forward to your report on THE GIRL WITH ALL THE GIFTS when you get back.

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