Some books — even parts of books — stay with you long after you’ve read them or after they’ve been read to you. There was a book recently that I had remembered reading as a kid, but I couldn’t think of it. It had to do with sisters buying penny candy and eating candy and crackers in bed. I couldn’t remember the title and eventually forgot about it, only remembering about the book occasionally and then getting annoyed that I couldn’t remember. Every time I thought of that story it made me happy and nostalgic. A month or two ago, someone mentioned All-of-a-Kind Family and I googled it, and lo and behold, the sample I read was what I had remembered, and I found my mystery book. Not to mention, not only did I get to reread that book, but there were four other books in the series that I hadn’t ever read. I dove right in.
Shortly after starting my reread, I realized that although the first book was published in 1951, it’s still pretty entertaining today. It follows a Jewish family on the Lower East Side of Manhattan in the early 1900s. There are five sisters (a brother joins them later) based on author Sydney Taylor’s own sisters. The series reportedly started out as stories she would tell her daughter each night. Her daughter Jo was an only child, and so Taylor would tell her stories based on her own life. She had a manuscript of the stories she told Jo, and her husband reportedly entered her manuscript into a contest without her knowing — and she won a publishing contract.
Each chapter of the books is its own little adventure in most of the novels (except the last one, Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family), celebrating holidays, learning life lessons, and meeting new people.
The Books in the Series
The first book, All-of-a-Kind Family, is a fun introduction to the family. We meet Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie, the sisters, and see the aforementioned penny candy incident, their mother coming up with a fun way to encourage cleaning for chores, and bouts of scarlet fever. They even inadvertently become part of a romantic reunion! The heartwarming book, first published in 1951, was many readers’ first introduction to a Jewish family. We read about the family keeping the Sabbath, celebrating Purim, and observing the High Holidays. It was the first book from a mainstream publisher to have Jewish children as the main characters while also being widely read.
The second published book is More All-of-a-Kind Family, but I read them in chronological order of events, so the next book I read was All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown. Although this is the fourth book in the series, it’s a prequel set right after the first book. This book has a little shift in tone. The girls meet a boy, Guido, whose life circumstances are much different than theirs, and part of the story is about how his life unfolds and their part in that. The girls are getting older and Mama has another baby: a boy, Charlie. Although this book is a bit more serious, there’s still plenty of fun.
The third book (in my reading order) is More All-of-a-Kind Family. In the introduction, it talks about how Taylor was told to tone down the Judaism in the books in certain ways. The Rosenbergs (Julius and Ethel) had just been arrested, and the editor and publisher were nervous (they didn’t realize that Taylor was a socialist, or they would have been even more nervous!). While Taylor didn’t tone it down, she did take their advice and added some other characters who were not Jewish. But she also had the book portray immigration, worker solidarity, and even the polio epidemic. She felt strongly about social justice issues and managed to write about them — in children’s books, no less — when it wasn’t so popular.
All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown was the fourth book I read, and the sisters are getting markedly more mature: they are dating and interested in boys, they’re becoming more independent, and Charlie is an adorable toddler. This book even has a chapter about Hanukkah and Christmas. (The second book also has a chapter on Christmas, but in a different way — and it’s delightful). The family lives in the Bronx now, electricity is becoming more commonplace, and WWI is starting. You can feel the shift that’s occurring.
Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family is the last book, and the only one to really center one of the family members, the oldest sister Ella. She’s growing up and on the cusp of making decisions that will impact her life forever. Taylor explores women’s rights in this book, even if it’s subtly. Ella is deciding between her love of performing or being a future wife and mother — although there are other stories in the book as well about the other siblings that also carry feminist undertones.
Why read them during the winter holidays?
Holidays can be stressful: family conflicts, financial strain, missing people who’ve passed away or who aren’t there, being homesick — for whatever reason, the holidays may not be happy for many people. Or they can be bittersweet. No matter what the holidays are like for you or what you celebrate (if anything at all), I think this series is like a warm hug. Every chapter is like a little episode of a wholesome show. These books show the family celebrating a variety of Jewish and non-religious holidays throughout the seasons, and it’s hard not to get caught up in their excitement about it. Taylor shines when writing about holidays; the descriptions bring you right in and she details everything, right down to the food. They’re also fairly short books, which makes them perfect for marathon reading or fitting them into a busy schedule.
There’s even a picture book called All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, if you’re really looking for something holiday specific — although Hanukkah is over, it’s still a lovely read. This one isn’t written by Taylor, though.
The family in these books isn’t perfect: the kids misbehave, the parents have some biases they examine, and they make missteps along the way. But what makes this so enjoyable to read are the relationships throughout the books. The children meet a variety of people, and they learn from each other and form relationships that enrich the stories.
By the end of the series, you’re rooting for Ella and Jules as a couple, and it’s hard not to feel sadness that Taylor didn’t get to write about any of the other sisters like she did Ella. You’ve seen the family experience serious illness, hospitalizations, a pandemic, births, hardship, sadness, joy — and in a way, you became part of it through reading the series. (And also, as a mom of one child, by the end of the series I was very amazed at how the mom always had so much energy and patience with six children). The word that comes to mind when I think of this series is cozy, and who doesn’t want more coziness during the winter?