Several decades have passed since I encountered an All-of-a-Kind Family book for the first time. The newest installment looks different (as do I), but our reunion was sweet.
All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah (Schwartz & Wade, $17.99) follows the youngest sister of five, Gertie as she tries to help her sisters make latkes. The book is unlike Sydney Taylor’s original series in striking ways: author Emily Jenkins uses the present tense to convey a young child’s sense of immediacy, and Paul O. Zelinsky’s bold and tender color illustrations look nothing like Helen John’s original detailed ink drawings. Still, the characters were immediately recognizable, and the book retains the series’ essential New York-yness. Reading it, I was filled with the cozy longing the series has always triggered in me.
As an eight-year-old All-of-a-Kind Family fan, I didn’t understand my nostalgia for something I’d never known. I wanted to live in Taylor’s world, with its sisterly camaraderie and muslin petticoats. I thought my desire to buy candied tangerines from a peddler on the Lower East Side made me uniquely soulful. But my reactions actually reflected the feelings of many contemporary American Jews. As the late children’s literature expert (and Taylor biographer) June Cummins noted in a 2003 article: “In her book Lower East Side Memories, historian Hasia Diner develops the argument that this small geographical area became a source of cultural identity and pride for American Jews after World War II. … Diner credits Taylor as the first writer to view the Lower East Side nostalgically, effectively recreating it for postwar American Jews and non-Jews.”
But I was also a kid, and kids have different relationships to their favorite books than adults do. Nothing I read today could ever capture my imagination the way the books I loved as a child did. That’s the consuming magic of childhood, the endless fascination we have with our favorite things. So, no literary feast can match the All-of-a-Kind Family episode in which Charlotte and Gertie amass a hoard of chocolate babies and broken cookies, then devour them in their bed after lights-out.
As an adult, it’s hard to find the room, or time, to enjoy this kind of extended imaginative experience. That’s probably just as well, since the idea of buying huge quantities of sweets for only two cents (the enduring fantasy of my childhood, and one that is slyly referenced in All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah) doesn’t have quite the same appeal today. Alas.
But maybe my most enduring All-of-a-Kind Family memories are yet to come. The scholar Alexandra Dunietz, who recently completed Cummins’ biography of Taylor, told me, “When my oldest was seven or eight, I started to read the books to my children. I remember this tremendous happiness we all felt—‘Oh, this is about a Jewish family, and they’re doing normal things! They’re losing library books! They go to the library on Friday!’” (We went to the library on Fridays, too.)
“I think I read all five books one after the other, a chapter or two a night,” Dunietz adds. “I have two boys and two girls, and they were all engaged.”
My three-year-old is too young for All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, but he does love books about New York City. So I’ll show him the pictures of Gertie and her sisters in the hopes that he, too, will one day be captivated by the adventures of his fellow New Yorkers, the All-of-a-Kind Family.
Elizabeth Michaelson Monaghan is a former Lilith intern and native New Yorker. Her work has appeared in City Limits, Paste, and McSweeney’s Internet Tendency.