Sydney Taylor, All-of-a-Kind Family (1951)
I don’t know why I never read All-of-a-Kind Family when growing up, but I was reminded that I needed to thanks to The Midnight Garden’s Classic MG/YA Readalong. I was very glad to finally get to know this beloved account of five girls growing up in a Jewish family on the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century.
Often compared to other period family stories like Little Women and Little House on the Prairie, All-of-a-Kind Family has far less conflict than either. The girls get scarlet fever, but nobody dies; there are no wolves, panthers or bears to menace their cozy home. Each chapter is a small domestic drama centering around incidents that may seem trivial to an adult — a lost library book, a trip to the beach, a search for a birthday present for Papa — yet are exactly the kinds of events that loom large in the life of a sheltered child. With her loving descriptions of festivals such as Purim and Passover, and of settings from street markets to Coney Island, Taylor brings us into the heart of a Jewish family with sensitivity and grace, and evokes a vanished way of life that was full of poverty and hardship but also rich in warmth and human connection.
There is little indication of the social struggles going on in the wider world. It’s stated several times that the family is poor, but though their food is simple they don’t go hungry, and they enjoy penny candy and special Sabbath meals. They don’t complain about the hand-me-down clothes that make them “all of a kind,” or about having to all sleep in one room. Unlike Jo March and Laura Ingalls, they seldom long for things they cannot have. Under the wise guidance of ever-serene Mama and hardworking Papa, they live contentedly and unquestioningly, and larger troubles of prejudice, class consciousness, or impending war do not disturb them. Occasionally the adults’ perspective is taken, with its heavier load of cares and responsibilities, but the focus is still on problems of the home (getting the girls to do their chores, or dealing with a spell of contrariness). In this small-scale narrative, it’s the details of daily life that fascinate.
In real life, Sydney Taylor was the middle child, “Sarah,” of the book (she changed her name as a teenager). She originally told these stories of her childhood to her own daughter, who was a lonely only child, then wrote them down and forgot about the manuscript until her husband submitted it for a literary award. It won the award, and the rest is history.
Written simply and unpretentiously, without literary flourishes but with a storyteller’s sure sense for the ear of her child audience, All-of-a-Kind Family retains its appeal for a new generation of readers. The four sequels have just been taken up this year by the new Lizzie Skurnick Books imprint, which is a good thing — once you’ve met this family you won’t want to say goodbye.