I didn’t read Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family until I was homeschooling my children. My first thought was, “Why didn’t I know about this sweet story when I was a child?” The first book in the series was published in 1951. June Cummins, who wrote the foreward for a 2014 edition of More All-of-a-Kind Family, says that at the time the first book was published, books specifically for or about Jewish characters reached a very limited audience, but that Taylor’s book changed the genre. Perhaps it just hadn’t caught on in our part of the country.
At their first meeting, the library lady describes the All-of-a-Kind family as a steps-and-stairs family. There are “five little girls dressed exactly alike.” Ella is twelve, Henny (Henrietta) is ten, Sarah is eight, Charlotte is six, and Gertie is four. Though they are all dressed alike, as the story goes on, we learn which is most typically the spokesperson, which one usually comes up with the ideas for games, and who is the most responsible. The personalities of the eldest three, especially, become more developed in this first book in the series.
Besides being a sweet story for girls, it is also a vivid picture of life in the Lower East Side of New York at the turn of the 20th century. The five girls, Papa and Mama are slightly more privileged than most in the neighborhood in that they live on the upper floor of a two-story house rather than in a crowded tenement building. Their apartment has four rooms!
In the opening scene, Sarah is distraught because she loaned her library book to a friend who lost it. She is concerned that she will never be allowed to go to the library again. With the lovely new library lady, she works out a payment plan for the book, which costs an entire dollar. The girls get a penny a day for spending money, so she will bring one penny a week to the library to pay for her book.
Papa owns a junk shop. One day he acquires a box of discarded books and the girls are allowed go through it. One girl finds a book of fairytales, one finds a book called The Dolls That You Love, and they also find an entire set of Dickens! When Papa says they may keep all those books, “they could hardly believe their ears. They never thought to own even one book and now they had twelve. It was too wonderful!” Can any of us Americans even imagine that now?
This book is full of sketches of daily life for the five sisters. They take Mama to visit the library lady and the family eventually befriends her. Mama figures out a clever way to get the girls to do their chores without grumbling. The girls go with Mama to the market. There is a vivid description of an old-fashioned street market. Men walk around wearing the garlic or mushrooms they have for sale, buyers and sellers haggle in Yiddish, a man sells hot sweet potatoes from his portable oven, Mama chooses the chicken she wants to buy and has come prepared with an apron so she can pluck it then and there.
Taylor takes the family through most of a year, during which she explains to the reader how several Jewish holidays are celebrated. There is a chapter about how they observe the Sabbath, and there is a chapter each for Purim and Succos. Passover occurs while scarlet fever is taking the sisters down one by one.
Ella, the oldest, has a crush on a young man who works for her father, but the only real romance turns out to be between two adults. The girls unwittingly have a hand in reconciling a couple who had separated because of a misunderstanding. The book ends with the promise of a wedding and a new member is added to the All-of-a-Kind Family.
The maturity of the content steps up rather quickly in the next book in the series, More All- of-a-Kind Family. The girls’ Uncle falls in love and gets married, but Ella also has a boyfriend by the end. There is nothing unwholesome about either situation, but some parents may not want to move immediately into the boyfriend question.
In All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, the family makes a move, they make new friends, and Ella is the central character. She and her friends have boyfriends, and WWI becomes a concern for everyone. Again, the story remains wholesome, but the characters mature much more quickly than will your little girl who started out with the first book in the series.