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We Are Family

The All-of-a-Kind Family books, marking their 60th anniversary, are a classic text of becoming American. They’re also a still-moving tribute to sisterhood.

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An illustration for All-of-a-Kind Family. (Helen John, from All-of-a-Kind Family, Random House)

This year marks the 60th anniversary of the publication of Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family. If you do not know about All-of-a-Kind Family, you either grew up on Tatooine or have a penis. All-of-a-Kind Family is the first in a series of books about five girls growing up on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 20th century. Its five heroines—Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie—are wildly different from each other: There’s the talented performer, the mischief-making rebel, the bookworm, the dreamer, the baby. No matter what kind of girl you were, you saw aspects of yourself in one of these five characters.

It’s impossible to overstate what a touchstone Family remains for book-loving American women of all ages, Jewish and not. It is on School Library Journal’s canonical list of 100 best children’s novels of all time, and the Association of Jewish Libraries has named its annual children’s book awards after Taylor. The books are deeply, powerfully loved.

There is another girl-centric ur-text about what it means to be an American: Little House on the Prairie, Laura Ingalls Wilder’s series about growing up in the Midwest in the late 19th century. In some ways Family and Little House are similar, but in other, important ways, not so much.

Both series excel at vivid descriptions of fashion and food. What could be more important to a young girl? The Little House books offer luscious and detailed accounts of calico patterns and corncob dolls; Family gives us ecru lace dresses and buttonhooks. Little House offers a roasted pig’s tail on a stick and snow candy made with maple syrup; Family gave us chocolate babies, pickles, and broken crackers from a giant barrel. I reveled in the description of the warm chickpeas Sarah bought from a street vendor:

First he took a small square of white paper from a little compartment on one side of the oven. He twirled the paper about his fingers to form the shape of a cone and then skillfully twisted the pointed end so that the container would not fall apart. He lifted the wagon cover on one side, revealing a large white enamel pot. The steam from the pot blew its hot breath in the little girls’ faces so they stepped back a bit while the peas were ladled out with a big soup spoon. The wagon cover was dropped back into place and the paper cup handled over to Sarah. The peas were spicy with pepper and salt, and how good they were!

Oh, the immediate sense of place, of things, of taste! As a little girl, I wanted those chickpeas in a cone so desperately that I forgot I hated chickpeas. Such was the descriptive power of Taylor’s writing. I think one reason male critics haven’t sufficiently appreciated AOKF is that they’re writ so small. There’s as much observing as doing. Food, fashion, and bickering—so much emphasis on girl things, girl concerns.

The same themes were evident in the Little House series, but, frankly, I always preferred Family. Sure, Taylor’s books are super Jewish while the Little House books are as goyish as mayonnaise. But it’s more than that. I’d argue that the five sisters are more vivid characters than Wilder’s Laura, Mary, and Carrie, and that the Family books more successfully strike the magical balance of being suspenseful without being too scary.

K’tonton, a book for a younger audience than Family, also manages that singular feat of being just exciting enough. But K’tonton never achieved a non-Jewish audience; Family, on the other hand, is as beloved by non-Jews as it is by Jews. It was the first crossover hit. I’d argue that in the same way the series is just scary enough, it’s also just exotic enough. A commenter responding to Lizzie Skurnick’s hilarious online appreciation of the series on Jezebel.com, titled “All-of-a-Kind Family: Where I Would Put Something Yiddish If I Thought You Goyishe Farshtunkiners Would Farshteyn,” typifies the non-Jewish response to Family: “I don’t think I knew any Jewish people when I was little, so this book meant so much because I discovered a culture that was so different from mine (little black girl living in Kensington, surrounded by my West Indian family) but was still so familiar.”

It’s true; girls of all backgrounds are fascinated by the world Family depicts. We viscerally feel the crowded busy streets, the multiethnic peddlers, and the poverty, but then we get to retreat to the cozy, loving confines of Mama and Papa’s tenement apartment. The outside world can be frightening—as it is for all children, developmentally speaking, no matter how or where they grow up—but inside is a safe space, marked by ritual objects (a fiddle in Little House, the Sabbath candlesticks in Family, in both books beautiful little objets proving a mother’s classiness) that make a house—or a log cabin, or a walkup—a home. What little girl doesn’t respond to that sense of coziness?

Among Jews specifically, though, I think Family has only gained resonance as we’ve gotten more acculturated. “While the books are about being Jewish, they are also about becoming American,” writes Taylor’s biographer June Cummins, associate professor of English at San Diego State University, in a 2003 article, “Becoming All-of-a-Kind American: Sydney Taylor and Strategies of Assimilation,” published in The Lion and the Unicorn, an academic journal dedicated to children’s literature. “As with any other immigrant group, the relationship between two identities, one associated with another country or culture and the other with America, produces a tension not easily, if ever, resolved.”

So many of us struggle with how Jewish to be. I feel it acutely, living as I do in Taylor’s old neighborhood. My girls walk to the library before Shabbat, just as Taylor’s girls do. We spend a lot of time at the Henry Street Settlement, only instead of meeting a nurse who helps poor Guido, we see Nutcracker in the Lower, a hip-hop and flamenco-inflected version of Tchaikovsky’s ballet. I live in a constant state of balance, wanting my public-school-educated children to feel joyfully Jewish but also part of the wider culture.

Taylor would have understood. By the time she wrote the books, Cummins tells me, Taylor no longer kept kosher, observed Shabbat, or celebrated most of the Jewish holidays she wrote about. Neither did the vast majority of American Jews. Yet Taylor wanted her daughter, and other children, to feel connected to their collective American past.

The tension between Jewishness and Americanness that makes the books feel so rich was a product of the intense back-and-forth relationship between Taylor and her editor, Esther Meeks, who consistently pressured Taylor to make the books less Jewish. Cummins quotes a December 28, 1950 letter to Taylor from Meeks: “I do think it important, too, particularly today, that this family show some signs of being American as well as Jewish.” Cummins posits that the “particularly today” refers to the arrest and trial of Julius and Ethel Rosenberg, which happened as the book was being written.

Perhaps because of Taylor’s awareness of Jews’ precarious position in American society, her books address otherness with the kind of care and nuance the Little House books lack. It can be hard to revisit the Little House books as an adult. Much has been written about the anti-Indian racism and sense of white entitlement these books depict. The AOKF books, on the other hand, portray an America in which many people of different backgrounds have to learn to get along and help each other. Where Ma Ingalls detests and scorns the Indians, AOKF’s Mama spares some of the family’s meager funds to help non-Jews. The family constantly praises the efforts of settlement house workers to help everyone. “There are exceptional people in this world whose hearts are big,” Mama tells Ella. “They really care about what happens to others. It’s people like that who started the settlement house.” Yes, the books contain ethnic stereotypes (the peddlers of many nations who schmooze and rest in Papa’s junk shop are about as nuanced as the Racing Sausages entertaining the crowds at Milwaukee Brewers games), but ultimately they’re embracing of difference and hopeful about the notion of diverse urban community.

But there’s the political and there’s the personal. While I loved the fashion and food and Jewishness and historicity and rich detail of the AOKF books, what made them indelible to me was something else. These five girls—sharing a bedroom, whispering late into the night, getting into scrapes and making up—felt like the sisters I never had and wished I did. Sure, the books were exciting, and sure, it’s wonderful to share the stories I loved with my own daughters, who love them just as much as I do. But ultimately, what I love about these books is that they’re about sisterhood. And that’s powerful.

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Steph F. says:

I still have my copies of the AOKF books, and now my daughter reads them and loves them too. They occasion conversations about just the sort of issues around ethnicity and acculturation you raise, but also class (remember that the family moves from that walkup “downtown” to “uptown,” and when Ella and Jules sing in a high holidays choir at a shul outside the city, we get a glimpse of their possible suburban, middle-class future). The stories about Rebecca (our American Girl)share some of the specificity you talk about, but with only one girl to identify with, they don’t have the same richness as AOKF.

Leslie Rosenthal says:

How I loved the AOKF books. I discovered them at the old-fashioned public library in Newport, Rhode Island, which used to be housed in a former Newport mansion. I was always the only Jewish child in my elementary school classrooms and this book made me feel not so alone. They also allowed me the word pictures to go along with my grandmothers’ stories about growing up. One of my grandmothers was the oldest of seven,including five sisters and it seemed to me that this book was lifted straight from her life. I made sure to share them with my son and daughter and they both loved them – they were fortunate enough to know one of my grandmothers until they were older teens and the AOKF stories also supplemented their pictures of Nana’s life on the Lower East Side.

I had totally forgotten about this book, in spite of Lizzie’s fine lines column, until my 2nd grader brought it home from her school library. She devoured it with great enthusiasm. Thanks for the appreciation!

Freddi C says:

I loved the All of a Kind Family books so much as a young girl. I hope my granddaughter will read them when she’s old enough (she’s 2 1/2). My daughter read them, too, so the tradition will continue. Thank you for bringing back the wonderful memories.

As a 5th grade teacher in a Jewish Day School, I have found that the All of A Kind Family books are often fabulous ways to finish off our study of a holiday or a Jewish ritual. The story of the Pidyon Ha-Ben (or the Pigeon Ben, as Charlie calls it), was the perfect way to bring to life a ritual that none of my students had ever seen. And although boys may not be likely to read All of A Kind Family on their own, they are just as captivated by it as the girls. Thanks also for the shout-out to K’tonton — although there’s some silliness in those stories, and they are sometimes a little too frum for my taste, they are also great at bringing Jewish holidays to life.

vacciniumovatum says:

I am female and Jewish and I never heard of the All-of-a-Kind Family books before today. I grew up in Crown Heights, so that might be why…

I love, love, LOVE these books. I grew up on the LES in the late 70s and early 80s and so they had a particularly special place in my heart. I took piano lessons at the Henry St. Settlement.

I also love how the girls love the library and how it is such a part of their lives – something I discuss at http://eveninaustraliakidlit.blogspot.com/2011/01/to-get-all-meta-on-you-books-about.html.

Which library branch do you go to – Seward Park or Hamilton Fish? :-)

PS – only the first book is currently in print. Do you think the 60th anniversary will prompt reprinting of the others?

“Even in Australia” is a great blog title! And yes, it’s shocking that only the first book is in print. To be fair, and this may be sacrilege, I don’t think they’re all of equal quality…but they should certainly all be in print! The fact that used copies are going for big sums online indicates that there’s a market, right? As for your question: We go uptown to Ottendorfer for our library adventures. My kids adore Miss Thea, the children’s librarian there. :)

Freda B Birnbaum says:

Drat!! Somehow I missed these as a kid. They would have just been coming out then. Of course the school library in North Carolina may not have thought of them as a priority.

But I somehow managed to miss Narnia AND Little House as a kid… I’m depraved on account of I’m deprived! I did catch up as an adult with Narnia and Little Hose though. Hope these come back into print…

Loved these books, and now my 9-year-old twin girls love them, too. Many years ago I invited a non-Jewish friend (from rural Minnesota) to our seder. She was so excited because she had always wanted to “find the cracker in the pillow” ever since SHE read them as a child.

I agree with you about the varying quality. I am reading them to my daughter now and we are on book 4. I have no recollection of this one and suspect I may have only read the first 2 as a child. The first is the best by far, in my opinion, followed by the second. The library book chapter, the soup chapter, the dusting chapter…

So nice that your kids have a relationship with the librarian. Makes me wish I hadn’t dropped out of library school…

Syndey Taylor was gracious enough to correspond with me by mail over the course of several years when I was a young reader. I am forever grateful to her and her work. My only hard decision about sharing them with my girls is whether to read them aloud, or let them discover them on their own, as I did.

Ellen Levitt says:

As much as I loved these books, and my older daughter did too, the mom of one of her (male)classmates complained when the books were assigned to the class; she felt the boys were bored by the books, couldn’t identify with then… #1– what’s wrong with boys reading books focused on girls? Too often it’s the other way around. #2–what was she reading (and not reading) in 4th grade that she had such criticism?
Hmmph!

My son loved these when he was a pre-schooler, during a period when I was searching for stories to read out loud that were as long and complex as he wanted yet not scary. (It’s not a long list of titles. Do you know how many children’s books are about orphans and kids who get lost?) Now that he’s an emerging reader we’re rereading the All of a Kind Family books slowly to each other. They’re very exotic to him in some of the ways they were to me. I had only one sibling. He has none. Nothing in the world could be more enticing than the lure of the large, warm and loving family.

greeneyeshade says:

Our small Orthodox synagogue has most of the series. I don’t know how many of the kids read them, but I sometimes look in with pleasure.

Jackie Lesser says:

These were my favorite books growing up. I anxiously looked for the series when I had a daughter, and I still tear up when I read about Sarah and the library lady, I can’t look at a beige dress without thinking “tea stained”… I explained one of the books to my Catholic office mate, and she looked at me and said, “that is my Sarah book, I couldn’t remember the name of my Sarah book” and she promptly went out and bought the series for her own daughters.

Chana Batya says:

I grew up in upstate New York, and when I read All of a Kind, it taught me about life in a largely Jewish, more urban, more immigrant world than I knew, but one that I had read about elsewhere. None of my family is from New York City, or even entered through Ellis Island (yes, all four of my grandparents were Jews) so when I read All of a Kind, I learned about the world that my friends’ grandparents talked about and a more normative American Jewish beginning than my family had lived.

Thanks for the memory about the cracker barrel! And I remember the housecleaning story, in which Mama hid “prizes” and even a penny every now and again for her girls to find if they cleaned well enough. I loved that.

Thanks so much for this column! It brings back so many happy memories. As a kid I loved these books so much, that I remember calling my public library to find out how I could write to Sydney Taylor to ask her to write more! I still remember feeling crushed when the librarian came back to the phone and told me that Taylor had passed away in 1978, the year I was born. I am sure my mom (a children’s librarian) already knew that, but she let me do the research b/c I was so enthusiastic. I look forward to sharing these books with my kids one day!

I ADORED those books. I sent Sydney Taylor a fan letter, way — WAY — back when, and her *husband* responded that she had JUST passed away. He enclosed a personal snapshot of her, which I still have … somewhere. I’m tearing up just thinking about it.

Karen U says:

I loved these as a child, and still do.

One minor correction. the Association of Jewish Libraries is an international organization (there is no “American” in the organization’s name). AJL can be a great resource for booklists, and other advisory information on Jewish literature (and librarianship!)
http://www.jewishlibraries.org

Kathe P says:

For all you fans with tattered copies: Random House will be publishing a reprint of All-of-a-Kind Family in July. Let’s hope it gets a reponse enthusiastic enough to convince them to reprint the rest of the series. My personal favorite book from Sydney Taylor is A Papa Like Everyone Else, which reminds me of my grandmother’s stories of growing up in Hungary.

For those with further interest, check out the Association of Jewish Libraries’ Readers’ Guide and Companion: http://www.jewishlibraries.org/ajlweb/awards/stba/companion.pdf

I never read these books–not sure how I missed them. But not too long ago, a writer friend told me about this wonderful series I needed to read. I had to order online through a used bookstore to get a copy. Of course, it’s Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family. It’s wonderful to see this article about the book and discover how much it meant to so many. I’m looking forward to reading it!

Thank you so much for reminding me of these books! I loved them – but haven’t thought of them for decades (till now!) Must get them for my kids – esp. now reading your great discussion of them vis a vis the Little House Books and the like. Lovely!

This takes me back to the 1950s. This series was my most favourite when I was little and just the memory of it brings such warm feelings to my heart. I think this was where i gained such a love of history and family and to top it off a Jewish story.

leslie says:

Hi Marjorie,

As usual you hit the nail on the head…
Fabulous-this and the holocaust themed piece.

BEST,

leslie

Lisa Silverman says:

Thank you for a fine and thoughtful piece of writing about a book that was so important to so many of us as children. I was so captivated by the “library lady” that I ended up becoming a children’s librarian!

Eric says:

What is really depicted on this book the life of a woman from being a girl to adulthood. It speaks about how woman can be strong or how a woman can be different from one another yet were able to create a bond. I think this also goes out to all of us.
—–
Eric,
expert on Community Service Quotes

Charlotte says:

I loved the AOAKF books, the holidays, the material culture; even wanted to convert. Glad I had the same name as one. But this smarmy dismissal of the Laura Ingalls Wilder books is incongruent to me. BTW, many people do read those books into adulthood–one author said if historians had “hearts” they would too. There are no Jewish-girl narratives from that time & place? The LIW world was a bit alien even to me, a Catholic urban ethnic, so I get your discomfiture. But they are NOT all about food and petticoats. Maybe how to get enough food to live. The sense of endurance, and of having inherited an aspiring culture (the best-loved gift for Laura was Tennyson) in a raw, rural land where it would be easy to fall– is a major theme. As for the anti-Indian racism, mainly Ma. What do you expect given the context? She was remembering the 1862 massacre. She was not a 20th century person.
Would you express anti-Russian racism if you wrote a story about a Cossack attack on a shtetle? Laura and her family faced possible death one night when some (probably justifiably angry) Indians were convening and war cries were raised in a suspensful chapter totally unlike anything in AOAKF.
But what I remember was Laura’s envy of the free-looking Indian kids and Pa’s respect for many of the Indian traditions. Laura begging Pa to get her the little Indian baby she has seen as the Indians stoically and with great dignity, trailed away single-file; and Pa explaining gently that the Indian mother wanted her baby. Pa–so much heartbreak, yet always up. The lone Indian warrior riding out to calm the imminent attack and urge peace even though he too was defeated. This is breathtakingly moving. It’s honest & true, not PC, and you come away feeling the dilemma of both sides. Yeah, the whites did think of the west as their promised land. Invaders. Old story. But designating the Laura Ingalls Wilder saga as “gentile as mayonnaise” (wth?) is arrogant and inaccurate. I’d even call it racist.

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Regina Carmel says:

Sidney Taylor is mishpocha. As a child in the early 1950s, I went to Cejwin Camps where Sid, as she was known then, was a head counselor along with Ella. They were third cousins (I think) and their family, the Brenners, brought my father to this country from Germany, just in time. We used to visit “Tante and Uncle,” the parents of All of a Kind Family, in the Bronx. Tante could crochet the most beautiful lace while reading two books simultaneously, one in German, one in English. Uncle had done a gorgeous and intricate paper cutting of Genesis, which hung on the walls. Charlotte went on to marry a lawyer and herself, became a writer. Very sadly, Ella’s life was rather tragic as she married a lovely man with a hereditary debilitating muscle/nerve condition which killed not only him but their children and grandchildren. No one remains of that branch of the family. Sid had gorgeous waist-length golden red hair; she loved to do modern dance and her hair would fly everywhere. Quite dramatic. The entire family were strong Zionists and very devoted to each other. Lovely memories – and lovely books. So happy they will once again be published. As a Hebrew and Jewish Studies teacher, I read these books to several generations of children, all of whom were always as delighted as I with the world Sid Taylor re-created.

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We Are Family

The All-of-a-Kind Family books, marking their 60th anniversary, are a classic text of becoming American. They’re also a still-moving tribute to sisterhood.

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