What can I say? All-of-a-Kind Family is a charming little story about a charming large family. It is not an action-packed, suspenseful tale, nor does it have anything mystical or magical about it. It is a real-life type of story, with people that we could imagine meeting, who live in a place that is old fashioned, but pretty normal.
For me, one of the most exotic and amazing things about life in early 1900s Manhattan was how much they could buy for a penny. Talk about your good old days! Of course, their allowance was measured in pennies as well, so maybe it’s not as good as it sounds.
The story takes us through everyday life and holiday times – roughly over the course of a year. Judging by the mention of holidays, we go pretty much from late fall of one year to early fall of the next. The opening scene is one that should endear the family of young girls to any reader – the weekly trip to the library! It’s a very important day for these girls because although their family is not destitute, they are poor, and owning books is out of the question for them. The trauma of a lost library book showcases the sympathetic support among the sisters and the kindness of their great friend, the Library Lady.
As I said, not exactly a thrill-a-minute style of beginning, but really, what’s not to like?
I think what I liked most about this book was the focus on little-kid feelings and impressions of all that happened, from shopping in the marketplace for the Sabbath dinner, deciding how to spend the precious pennies they receive after lunch each day, the sights and smells of their father’s junk shop, conversations and games at bedtime. All important stuff, seen from the child’s-eye view. During the market visit, we get the following observations:
“At the next corner, Henny bought a fat, juicy sour pickle with her after-lunch penny. She ate it greedily, with noise and gusto, while her sisters watched, their mouths watering. ‘Selfish! How about giving us a taste, huh?’
Henny pretended that she didn’t hear them, but before the pickle was half gone, she stopped teasing and gave each a bite.
Inside Mama’s favorite fish store, the smell was not so pleasing. ‘Gertie,’ suggested Charlotte, ‘let’s squeeze our noses tight and talk to each other while we’re squeezing.’
And that’s just what they did, talking about anything at all just so they could hear the funny sounds which came through their squeezed noses. ‘Look at the big fish with goggly eyes,’ said Gertie.”
The prose is very straightforward, but I felt the little-kid need for a bite of the pickle, and could hear the funny-sounding pinched-nose voices as I read.
I got an education about Jewish holidays, too. I knew something of Hanukkah (not mentioned at all in the book, by the way) and Passover and the High Holidays, but not about dressing up and using noisemakers for Purim or anything at all about Succos. Again, it’s all told with attention to the details that a child would remember – the specialness, the break from the ordinary.
This is definitely a “fond memories” type of story – told by a narrator who clearly loved her own childhood. There is a chapter devoted entirely to Mama being strict about not wasting food and not budging on the lunchtime rules – if someone did not finish their soup, they could not move on to the rest of the meal. No question about it. And there was a chapter about all the girls getting scarlet fever and the excitement of being under quarantine and missing school and not being able to sit at the table for the Seder at Passover. But even these chapters are told with sense of fondness and nostalgia, and the assurance of parental solidity and love.
As an adult, I’m not likely to reread this book like I do for something like Harry Potter or A Wrinkle in Time, but for young readers, this is a nice little trip back in time, and for many, a peek into big city life, a look at a different culture, or even a taste of what it’s like to be part of a large family.
Number of pages: 188
Date of publication: 1951
Story time and setting: Early 1900s, Lower East Side Manhattan (largely Jewish Community)
First line: “That slowpoke Sarah!” Henny cried. “She’s making us late!”
Main characters: Mama and Papa, five sisters (Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, Gertie), a large Jewish community and a couple of special friends – Charlie and The Library Lady.
Reading age level: 8 and up (some unfamiliar words for young gentile readers, but new words are always good)
Emotional/Maturity level: We can all handle reading about a happy, loving, hard-working family.