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The All-of-a-Kind Family Series

by Rebecca Ripperton
May 13, 2019

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.

All-of-a-Kind Family

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!
Ages 5-12

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.

Family and Sisterhood

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.

All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown

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.
Ages 7-12

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.

Love of Literature and Reading

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.

More All-of-a-Kind Family

​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.
Ages 7-12

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.

The Jewish Faith

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.

All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown

​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.
Ages 8-13

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!

The “All-of-a-Kind Family” Books and the “Betsy-Tacy” Series

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.

Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family

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.
Ages 9-15

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!

Share your experience!

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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When the Curtain Rises

by Lisa Ripperton
​May 9, 2019

This is the third post in our series on ​selection criteria for choosing books for children in the early years. The first two are alluded to below, but you can read our ​earlier posts on Apperception and Sense Appeal to get the full story. The excerpt below comes from Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's "For the Story Teller" (1913). ​

Although Carolyn Sherwin Bailey refers specifically to "stories" here, keep in mind that everything she says about telling stories also applies to picture books.

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One way to begin a story

A tired-out, unenthusiastic school teacher in one of our large public schools was recently endeavoring to secure the attention of her class for a story. This story hour was, for her, just one lap in the march of the day's routine, a period to be finished as soon as possible, and she began it in a stereotyped way.

"I am going to tell you a story, children," she said, "and I want every child in the room to sit up straight, put his feet flat on the floor and fold his hands. When everybody is ready, I will begin."

​A more successful approach

In contrast one is reminded of another teacher, who opened her story hour in a different way. In point of fact, she did not really open it at all in the formal understanding of the word. Nor did she have any specified period of the day for telling stories. When her class was fatigued and needed a note of relaxation, when they were restless and needed calming, when they seemed to need inspiration, she gave the signal for books and pencils to be put away and with no further introduction she took the children with her to Story Land for a space, opening her story in so interesting a way that she compelled attention without asking for it.

The instance of the first story teller is an example of securing a child's voluntary attention.

The second story teller illustrated a method of securing a child's involuntary, almost unconscious attention.

​How to secure a child's attention

Especially in the case of the little child who is beginning his school work, and even up to the more mature years of childhood, voluntary attention, that mental operation in which the will is called upon to open the doors of the senses and let in knowledge, is almost too much for us to ask of a child. The wonderful machinery of the mind has provided another and much more economic means of knowledge acquisition. Certain mind stimuli will set the whole wireless system of perception, association and memory going​ without any effort on the part of the story teller save that of discovering the stimuli. In other words, we must secure involuntary attention in children through studying their interests.​ The story that opens with headlines of child interest  as compelling as those of one of our yellow news sheets will hold a child's attention without his being in the least conscious of his attitude of mind toward it. Voluntary attention, the mind attitude toward a story that is brought about by folded hands and straight backs, is very likely to lapse, to develop a will-o'-the-wisp character and finally lose itself. Concentrated attention can be secured in children only through the medium of appealing to child interest.

​Catching attention at the start is key

The successful story teller will bear in mind the fact, in selecting stories to tell, that the good story for children of any age, and adults too, for that matter, should have one of the qualities that characterize a successful drama. It must catch the attention of the audience the moment the curtain rises.​ There must be no long explanation, no descriptive scenes and painful dragging in of the plot. Children do not care a rap for the creating of atmosphere. They do not care how long ago the story events happened, or why they happened. What they are eager for is a quick story appeal made the second that the story curtain rolls up.

​Questions for the teller to ask

Each story told to children ought to be selected having in mind its beginning.​ The story teller must ask herself another set of questions:

"Does the story interest begin with my first paragraph, my first sentence, my first word?"

"Will the opening of my story find an apperceptive basis for attention in the minds of my children?"

"Has my story a sense appeal in the first sentence?"

Any one of these qualities of story opening will help to win the sympathy of the child audience and will find a ready response in involuntary attention.

​A compelling opener

A class of little street boys waged continued warfare upon one of the New York Settlement Houses. They broke the windows, mobbed the Settlement children and carefully evaded the police. The Settlement story teller decided, one night, to open the doors of the house to the gang of boys and see if it would not be possible to win them over to an interest in the work of the Settlement and lead them to obey the laws of society through stories. The boys entered the building like a besieging army. They shouted, stamped, stampeded into the room that had been assigned them and throwing down chairs and overturning tables they proceeded to produce a scene of Bedlam. The story teller made no effort to control the boys. She secured for herself a place of vantage in the center of the room. When there was an instant's lull in the uproar that the boys were making, as they took breath for more rowdyism, she said in a low, even tone of voice:

"There was once a little Indian boy who rode fifty miles on the cow-catcher of an engine."

Then she waited and the boys waited, too, breathlessly eager for her next words. When she saw that she had caught the interest of her audience, she proceeded with the story in the same even, low voice, not so much telling the boys a story, apparently, but just telling a story, every sentence of which painted a word picture and the whole being a graphic series of moving pictures unrolled on a story film before her audience. She gave the story facts about the Indian lad who had never seen a locomotive and stole a daring ride on one because he thought it was a fire-horse. One by one the boys seated themselves quietly on the chairs or on the floor to listen. Several lay flat upon the floor, crawling stealthily nearer to the story teller as their interest in the story deepened. Throughout the entire telling of the story the room was absolutely still, and when the climax came the boys asked for another story. From that evening they were the Settlement's staunch allies.

The wrong way to begin

It would have been impossible to secure the voluntary attention of these boys. The fact that some one wanted to tell them a story would have probably inspired them to more lawlessness. If the story teller had begun the story after this fashion:—

"Fifty years ago there were few railways in the western part of our country. The prairies were peopled by Comanche tribes who were unfamiliar with the inventions of civilization, and the first train that ran through an Indian settlement inspired an Indian lad to a strange deed"—

Not a boy would have listened. This form of story beginning is bad​ and phenomenally common in many stories for children. It is an example of words,​ not interest stimuli. It explains a story situation instead of presenting​ it. A story to secure the involuntary attention of children should have the quality of a crashing orchestral overture, a thunder clap, a pistol shot—so unexpected, compelling, and penetrating will it be.

Basis of the appeal

"There was once a little Indian boy who rode fifty miles on the cow-catcher of an engine."

Could there be a more stimulating story beginning for a group of boys than this? There is an apperceptive appeal in the Indian lad. He was not a man, not a chieftain, but just a little lad like themselves. There is an immediate sense appeal in the steam-engine image that the story beginning brings to their minds. Smoke, smell, bell ringing, whistle blowing, steam escaping, and the rattle of iron wheels on iron tracks are all recalled to a boy's mind in one glorious bit of imagination whose only stimulus is the word engine.​ Then, to clinch the apperceptive and sensory appeal of the sentence, is the quick introduction of a new story interest—the Indian boy did a deed that they, in their wildest dreams, had never considered—he rode an engine.

​​Examine story closely to discover main point of interest

If a story, otherwise good, opens poorly—is too wordy, too descriptive, too pedantic—study the story carefully for its main interest and, selecting just the right words to convey this overture of interest, begin there. It will be discovered that certain of the classic, favorite tales of childhood fulfill this story test. They open compellingly and carry the interest that was stimulated in the first paragraph clear through to the end.

​Strong Opening #1 — "The Faithful Tin Soldier"

"There were once five and twenty tin soldiers who were all brothers, for they had been made out of the same old tin spoon."

Hans Christian Andersen used the child's instinctive love of counting his toys, and a bit of humor that tickles a child's fancy, when he wrote this opening paragraph of his wonderful old allegory, "The Faithful Tin Soldier."

Strong Opening #2 — "The ​Greedy Cat"

"Once upon a time there lived a cat and a parrot and they thought they would ask each other to dinner, turn and turn about."

This folk tale of "The Greedy Cat" opens with a strong sense appeal. The children's interest aroused in the first sentence by means of the progressive dinner arrangement of the famous cat is sustained to the last word of the story.

Strong Opening #3 — "​Drakestail"

"He was a wee little duck with a very long tail, so he was called Drakestail. Now Drakestail had some money of his very, very own and the King asked if he might take it. So Drakestail loaned all his money to the King—"

In this old folk tale, the gist of which is the merry adventures of a duck, the story interest begins with the first sentence. The children are introduced, with no unnecessary preliminaries of description or explanation to the hero, Drakestail, and then they are plunged into the story itself, interesting and direct in its appeal.

Strong Opening #4 — "​Coming of the King"

"Some children were at play in their playground one day, when a herald rode through the town, blowing a trumpet and crying aloud: 'The King! The King is coming!' "

In this story, Laura E. Richards' "Coming of the King," which can be found in her collection of short stories, The Golden Windows, a strong sense appeal commands the child's involuntary attention at the beginning of the story. The familiar figures, children at play in their playground, are introduced to the sound of a trumpet's call, instantly attracting the attention of the child listeners.

​Strike the note with the first sentence

​Once the story teller has learned story selection, having in mind a beginning that will hold the attention of her audience from her first word, her success will be secured. It is also possible to carry this interest which has been secured for the child the instant that the curtain rolls up, straight through to the end of the story, because of its compelling beginning. The opening paragraph of a child's story should be the theme, tuned to the key and melody of child interest about which and on which the rest of the story plays. The noteworthy dinner of the cat, and the mouse forms the keynote for the rest of the classic adventures of the Greedy Cat. The "wee little duck" and the avaricious old King whom we meet in the first paragraph are the main actors in the story drama of Drakestail. The playground of the children that we see in the first sentence of Mrs. Richards' "The Coming of the King," is the scene of a story miracle almost unparalleled in short story writing for children.

​The way to begin a story

​Cutting out unnecessary description, avoiding any explanation as to why you are telling the story, introducing your thunder clap, your trumpet, your story hero in the first sentence—this is the way to begin a story.

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This concludes this excerpt from the ​third chapter of Carolyn Sherwin Bailey's For the Story Teller.

The takeaway

In choosing books to read to your children rather than tell, you obviously won't want to invent a new beginning. But you can evaluate picture books by turning to the first page and reading the first sentence or two. Are you drawn into the story by the opening words? Will your child be? Take a fresh look at some of your family's favorite picture books to see how the opening words capture attention. Here as an example are the first words of one of our favorites: "In January it's so nice while slipping on the sliding ice to sip hot chicken soup with rice. Sipping once, sipping twice, sipping chicken soup with rice." Who wouldn't want to turn the page and find out what ensues in Maurice Sendak's Chicken Soup with Rice?​

To give you more ​opportunity to think about ​story openings, here are ​fourteen stories (all fine choices to read to five year-olds) that Carolyn Sherwin Bailey lists at the end of her third chapter as introducing ​the story interest in the very first paragraph:

Share your experience

​Which of your favorite picture books have compelling openings? Please share in the comments!

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