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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!
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