As I was writing our All-of-a-Kind Family post two weeks ago, I was struck by the many similarities between the final book of that series, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, and the penultimate book in the Betsy-Tacy series, Betsy and the Great World. Both are later books in a children’s book series, but neither could reasonably be considered a book for children. In fact, they’re much more books for young women than for children. I know that I personally first read these books well over a decade ago, but it is the more recent re-reads that have impacted me most.
This fact prompted me to consider the role that these books have played in my own life as I’ve grown up, and also to think about how returning to children’s books as an adult can be an invaluable and rewarding activity. In keeping with that idea, today’s post explores how re-reading these books can serve as a source of guidance and solace for young women, in addition to serving as beloved chapter books for younger children.
In both Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family and Betsy and the Great World, the author establishes a markedly different tone from the rest of the series. The topics addressed in these books are more mature than those of prior books in the series, and the tone of both books reflects that fact. In each story, the protagonist is in the earliest years of her adulthood and is seeking both direction and purpose in her life. Both Betsy and Ella also struggle with feelings of isolation. Betsy’s isolation is due to geographical separation: she is in Europe on a year abroad, while her family and friends have remained behind in Minnesota. Ella is closer in proximity to her family, but she is still separated from them through her work and the decisions she must make about her career as a singer and performer. Both characters are bright and accomplished, and are consequently grappling with the question of how best to make use of one's education and intelligence as a young woman at a time when women routinely did not work outside the home, at least not on a full-time basis.
In Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family, Ella is given the opportunity to perform as a professional singer, but instead of singing arias or other classical music, she is cast in a vaudeville show. She faces the question of whether or not she loves performing so much that she would be willing to do this kind of work until she has her big break. She feels a fair amount of shame over the kind of performance she’s a part of, but still she longs to have a career in music. Another obstacle is her long-term beau Jules’ resistance to the prospect of her working outside their home. Her challenging task is to figure out a way to do what she loves and to be with those whom she loves simultaneously.
In Betsy and the Great World, Betsy takes a year off from university to travel in Europe. Her dilemma is less defined than Ella’s and her family is also much more fortunate in their circumstances. Betsy has been frustrated in her university classes and wants to pursue a cultural education, one more appropriate to her aspirations as a writer, and her parents willingly support her in taking a year abroad. Lovelace’s descriptions of Europe in the 1910s are exquisite, even as Betsy is suffering from extreme homesickness and unhappiness throughout the story. This book, coupled with Betsy’s Wedding (the book about Betsy’s first year of marriage), provide good insight into the emotional experience of leaving behind your childhood home and entering into foreign territory, both figuratively and literally.
Another book in this same vein is Emily of Deep Valley, again by Maud Hart Lovelace. In the story, Emily was orphaned at an early age and lives with her aging grandfather. The book focuses on her wrestling with the question of what to do with her life after she graduates from high school, since she is unable to continue her studies at the University. Both because of her old-fashioned -- albeit very kindly -- grandfather’s perspective and for financial reasons, a college education is simply out of the question. Emily was an incredibly bright and involved high school student, and she falls into a kind of depression after graduation, since she has no clear path or idea of what significant work to do next. But slowly she begins to forge new friendships and carve out a rich and meaningful life for herself.
To me, this is the saddest of all of the Sydney Taylor and Maud Hart Lovelace books, but I think I also appreciated it the most for that very reason. Emily doesn’t have the same large and supportive family that Ella and Betsy do, nor does she have the same resources and opportunities. Yet she remains quietly resolved to better herself, her own life, and the lives of those around her. It isn’t always an easy book to read, but it is well worthwhile.
I first read all of these books when I was probably 12 or 13, but then I found myself eagerly reading them again in my late teen years and early 20s. When I read them originally, it was impossible for me to fully appreciate the nuance with which Maud Hart Lovelace and Sydney Taylor approached the subject of young women transitioning into adulthood.
Both authors show young women struggling with wanting to do something with their talents, but feeling thwarted. These characters all must work to create paths for themselves where none previously existed, and they experience loneliness and isolation along the way. The authors also honor their characters’ desires to have families and to find harmony between their work and their ties to their own parents, as well as their ties to their partners and future children.
While re-reading the books as an adult, I was struck by the penetrating honesty with which Lovelace and Taylor approach these more sensitive topics. Children’s literature is so often idealized, and while these books are, too, in many regards, there is also a surprising degree of candor and openness in the characters’ thought processes and conversations with others. That openness is something I greatly appreciated at times in my own life when I wasn’t sure what my next step was, or was struggling with my own transition from late childhood into early adulthood.
So, I would definitely recommend that if you do read these series with your children, you might consider letting them read the later books by themselves and then absolutely keep a copy around for them when they are older. They’ll appreciate it more than you know!
If you haven’t yet read Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family books, you are in for a treat.
This series of five chapter books recounts the lives of five Jewish sisters who live in Manhattan in the early 1900s with their Mama and Papa. Papa and Mama both immigrated to America from the “old country” and they now live on the Lower East Side where Papa runs a junk shop for local peddlers. (Mama has her hands full at home taking care of so many children!)
At the beginning of the series, the oldest daughter Ella is twelve, and Gertie, the very youngest, is four. All five girls are spaced exactly two years apart, so they are a “steps-and-stairs,” or “all-of-a-kind” family, with Henny, Sarah, and Charlotte falling in the middle between Ella and Gertie. At the very end of the first book, a sweet baby boy named Charlie is added to the family! And at the end of the entire series, Ella has graduated from high school and is exploring a career as a professional singer.
Meet the All-of-a-Kind Family — Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie — who live with their parents in New York City at the turn of the century. Together 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 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!
The sisters are all very different from one another, making them a lively gang. Yet, on the whole, the family is incredibly tight-knit and protective of one another.
The stories recounted in the series are simply about occurrences in the daily lives of the sisters. They include vignettes about mishaps that occur both at school and at home, the girls’ countless debates over deciding how to spend their daily pennies, preparations to throw a May Day party and countless other celebrations, despair over a lost and very precious library book, welcoming various friends from the community into their family, a Scarlet fever epidemic, one of the girls running for a high school class office as the very first female candidate, two very exciting engagements, and much, much more.
Growing up, being part of a family with five daughters would have been the fulfillment of my greatest childhood wish. I wanted as many sisters as I could possibly get, and consequently loved reading books about sisters! All-of-a-Kind Family was the gold standard in this regard, since there were a grand total of five girls with just one baby brother as a bonus. (Even though I preferred sisters, 5:1 was definitely an acceptable ratio.)
The sisters all slept together in one room and seemed to do just about everything, if not all together, then at least in pairs. Whenever one girl got into any kind of trouble, all the others were there to help. For example, in the very beginning of the first book, Sarah lends her weekly library book to a friend who loses it, but Sarah herself must pay the library for the cost of the book. Her sisters all agree to help her by each bringing a penny a week until the book is paid for in full.
Stand-alone chapters make this a perfect read-aloud, as the story follows the five sisters who are very busy, especially now that baby Charlie is growing so quickly. Ella gets a big role in the Purim play, Henny gets into trouble at school and runs away, Sarah gets her ears pierced, Charlotte has a scary kitchen accident, and Gertie finally is old enough to have a book of her own. This title, although written later, picks up right where the first, All-of-a-Kind Family, ended.
They are raised to look out for one another, and to share their joys and sorrows with each other. Family is clearly of the greatest importance to Mama, Papa, and each of the daughters; we see each character encounter situations where they must consider what is in the best interest of the entire family and make sacrifices for the whole family’s sake.
The girls also have aunts, uncles, and cousins aplenty who make appearances throughout the series, but it really is the relationship between all of the daughters that shines through most brightly in these books.
The family isn’t able to afford books of their own, so the daughters have made a ritual of going to the library every Friday after school. Each girl is able to check out one book to read for the week, and they all look forward to this weekly event with great excitement. The younger daughters also anticipate the day when they are old enough to check out books of their very own, and feel that having a library membership is a great honor.
Two especial highlights of the series come when Papa receives a delivery of books at his junk shop and lets the girls pick out titles to keep for their very own, and later when one of the daughters wins a beautiful dictionary illustrated in color as an academic prize. The All-of-a-Kind Family girls truly cherish the books they are able to read, and as readers, we get to share in their excitement.
In the third book of Sydney Taylor’s classic children’s series, Ella finds a boyfriend and Henny disagrees with Papa over her curfew. Thus continues the tale of a Jewish family of five sisters-Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie-living at the turn of the century in New York’s Lower East Side. Entertaining and educational, this book brings to life the joys and fears of that time and place.
Today books are so readily available to us and are also much more affordable than they were in the past. It’s all too easy, as a result, to take their presence in our lives for granted, but All-of-a-Kind Family reminds us just how precious books truly are and just how much magic and joy they can bring into our lives.
Throughout all of her books, Sydney Taylor does a wonderful job of introducing the reader to the Jewish faith, as well as many of its rituals and holy days. In her writing, Taylor manages to integrate the retelling of a biblical story, her description of its contemporary celebration, and the involvement of the All-of-a-Kind Family members. Their family’s faith truly is a living one, and Taylor portrays it beautifully.
Preparations for the Sabbath are woven into the fabric of the family’s week, with frequent references made to faith, the Torah, and Hebrew tradition. The family also prepares their food in accordance with kosher law, and observes annual holy days, such as Rosh Hashanah, Yom Kippur, Hanukah, and Passover. Sydney Taylor also provides the reader with an in-depth introduction to lesser-known holidays, such as Sukkot, Purim, Simchat Torah, and even Pidyon Haben – a celebration honoring the birth of a first-born son.
After moving uptown to the Bronx, the charming All-of-a-Kind Family have a new home, new neighbors and new friends. There’s always something exciting going on. Ella misses Jules who has joined the Army, Henny spills tea on a dress she borrowed without asking, Sarah works to win a prize at school, Charlotte takes the elevated train without paying her fare, Gertie makes a pancake, and Charlie is terrified when he meets Santa Claus! And things are are especially busy as Mother has gone into the hospital, and everyone must help out to make the house run smoothly.
Papa and Mama encourage their girls to ask questions about their religious beliefs and practices as they are growing up, and provide thoughtful answers, so the reader is given the chance to learn alongside of the daughters. (And the age differences between all the children make for a great variety of questions!)
Growing up in the Christian church, my brother and I were familiar with the stories from The Old Testament that Taylor retells, but not the traditions and celebrations associated with them. We loved listening to our Mom read the All-of-a-Kind Family books aloud to us, and we also learned a remarkable amount about the Jewish faith without ever realizing it at the time!
As I was re-reading this series in preparation for this post, I was struck by the many similarities between the All-of-a-Kind Family books and the Betsy-Tacy series. Both series feature families of (mainly) sisters of approximately the same age. Both series are set in the early 20th century and note the effects of World War I on their families and communities. Books, theatre, and music feature prominently in both series. Rich family lives are also at the center of both series, with faith as an ever-present backdrop. Education is strongly emphasized by both sets of parents, as is moral character and decision-making. And both series struck a beautiful balance of light-hearted play with more serious subjects.
World War I has ended, and Ella, the oldest of the five sisters, who dreams of singing and dancing in the theater, is discovered by a Broadway talent scout. It seems that she will have her chance at a theatrical career after all, starting in vaudeville. But her thoughts are also on Jules, just returned from the War, and marriage. Once again a loving family provides the support needed to make the right decision.
I was most struck, however, by the similarities between the later books in each series, in particular Betsy and the Great World and Ella of All of a Kind Family. These two books feel like outliers from the rest of their respective series, since both take one character and more or less isolate her in the early stages of her adulthood. Ultimately I think these two books merit their own post since they’re almost in a genre of their own. But more on this coming soon!
Have you ever read the All-of-a-Kind Family books, or any other titles by Sydney Taylor? If so, we'd love to hear what you thought about reading them! If you haven't read them yet, do they sound like the kind of books that you or your children would enjoy?
Please let us know in a comment below! We love sharing our favorite books with you, and hearing your thoughts on them, as well!
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