Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie may not have the name recognition of Meg, Jo, Beth, and Amy, or Laura and Mary, but that could change, now that Lizzie Skurnick Books has reprinted four of the five All-of-a-Kind Family books, originally published between 1951 and 1978.
For publisher Skurnick, whose imprint is devoted to reissuing out-of-print classic young-adult literature, reviving Sydney Taylor’s saga of five Jewish immigrant sisters growing up on New York’s Lower East Side at the beginning of the 20th century was a no-brainer. “The All-of-a-Kinds are completely singular,” Skurnick said. “They’re the first series about a Jewish family ever, one that’s not only about the family, but about Jewish culture, New York, the turn of the century, vaudeville, polio, the rise of technology. Letting them go out of print would be losing such a huge chunk of American history, to say nothing of a wonderfully told story.”
Jewish and non-Jewish alike, devoted readers agree. “I must have read each of the books in that series about 12 times!” said Elizabeth Steiner Hayward, who grew up in a Jewish family in Cambridge. Mary Thorndike of Jamaica Plain recalled “how much fun they had together, the creativity and imagination,” but also that “everything I know about Judaism I learned from those books.” Rinku Sen, executive director of Race Forward, a national racial justice nonprofit, said, “I devoured these books as a kid, read them over and over. I’m not Jewish, but I was an eldest immigrant child, and I identified deeply with Ella, admired her responsibility and leadership. The family’s economic and cultural struggles prepared me for my own.”
The books unfold in a series of episodes, some featuring the whole family, some just one girl. If the young sisters wear matching blue dresses and white pinafores (hence, all-of-a-kind family), they each, like the March and Ingalls girls, have their own characters: responsible oldest sister Ella, rebellious Henny, bookish Sarah, dreamy Charlotte, and baby Gertie.
The girls venture to the street market on Thursdays with their mother and to the library on Fridays, celebrate Jewish holidays and the Fourth of July, and visit their father’s junk shop. They oversee romances between the library lady and Charlie, a handsome but mysterious young peddler, and Uncle Hyman and Lena, a recent immigrant, or “greenhorn,” whom they meet when she rescues their younger brother, Charlie, born at the end of the first book, from an oncoming wagon.
In some of the most beloved chapters, Mama hides buttons to turn dusting into a game; Charlotte and Gertie spend their penny allowances on crackers and chocolate babies for a late-night snack in bed; and Henny spills tea on Ella’s white dress, which she has borrowed without permission, but resolves the crisis by dyeing the whole dress “ecru” in a bathtub full of tea.
Then there is the food, and oh what food it is! Latkes, challah, corned beef, and gefilte fish; Uncle Hyman’s favorite thickly buttered rye bread with boiled eggs; the homemade soup Sarah refuses to eat one unfortunate lunchtime; sweet potatoes and paper cones filled with spiced chickpeas, bought from street vendors; and those famous chocolate babies, lusted after by decades of readers, which Charlotte and Gertie nibble limb by limb.
As the girls grow older, the family moves to the Bronx, and some of the episodes become more serious: They make non-Jewish friends; Mama falls ill; Ella’s boyfriend, Jules, goes off to war; and Ella must choose between Jules and her nascent vaudeville career.
According to San Diego State University English professor June Cummins, who wrote the forewords to the new editions and is working on a biography of Taylor, serious intentions framed the author’s desire to share the stories about her childhood with her four sisters. Taylor, whose name was originally Sarah, first told the stories to her daughter, who wondered why there were no Jewish children in the books she read. Taylor was a socialist, and she subtly threaded political themes through the books, including workers rights (in a May Day celebration), women’s suffrage (when Henny runs for class office), immigration, and assimilation.
But if the books have powerful messages, they are also great fun, which is why Nili Pearlmutter of Arlington is reading them to her seven-year-old daughter. “I love introducing her to a world similar to the one that her great-grandparents grew up in,’’ she said. “The books have a wonderful sense of joy, even though it is clear that the characters have much less stuff than our kids are used to having.’’
That makes another new reader who loves All-of-a-Kind Family, and chances are, she won’t be the only one.