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!
I 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.
- 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.
August Discussion Book!
The 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.