Friday, December 10, 2010

Sydney Taylor and the All-of-a-Kind Family Books

First book in the series of five, first published by Delacourt in 1951
Poop! I started writing this ages ago and meant to get it finished while it was still Hanukkah, but life is hectic these days. Well, it's not too late really, because these books, although they center around a Jewish family, also make fabulous gifts for Christmas, birthdays, and other present-giving occasions. They're universal, timeless, wonderful. (If you can track copies down - only the first seems to be in print still, though some of the others are available new as audiobooks.)

When I was a young child during the early 1960s, I knew little about the Jewish faith or holidays - even though I now realize one of my best friends was probably Jewish (her mother was a Holocaust survivor). My family, though not religious, celebrated the standard Christian holidays, and at school, we only discussed and celebrated these Christian holidays or the official American ones like Thanksgiving and Memorial Day. The local stores and my community then (Arlington, VA) only decorated for them too, and so if there were Jewish kids in my midst, it just didn't come up. In short, there was little to expand my cultural knowledge - except books, which I was lucky enough to have in abundance.

The Stair-step Sisters checking out library books in an illustration by Helen John
The All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor introduced me not only to a Jewish family and the special days of their faith, they transported me in space to the Lower East Side of Manhattan and in time to the turn of the 20th century. But however long ago, far away, and set in a different culture these stories were, the characters rang absolutely true to my life and family. Although there were only three girls in my family rather than the five in the books, my sisters and I were also stair-step siblings with similar squabbles, alliances, and shared experiences - and a warm, close family. I particularly identified with Sarah, who, like me, was the square-in-the-middle sister, and who, also like me, wanted badly to be a good girl, but fell short periodically through carelessness or stubbornness. (I was particularly pleased to learn recently that the author, Sydney Taylor, was actually the Sarah of the books, which were based on her own childhood and family. She changed her first name during high school - kind of like I did for a while during junior high when I added a fashionable "e" to the end of mine.)

Second book in the series
My sisters and I loved the whole series of five books, but I think our group favorite was the first one. I do know that after we moved to Ohio when we were on the cusp of adolescence, our tattered copy lived in the crammed-full bookcase in the third floor bathroom. That bathroom boasted a deep claw-footed tub where we took turns soaking away our teen angst while reading voraciously. Over time, that collection of much re-read childhood favorites became known in our family as "The Bathtub Books," and we squabbled again as we grew up and left home over who could lay claim to which ones. Which was silly, since they were all utterly waterlogged, stained, and tattered to the point of falling apart. (You can read more about them and other ideas for encouraging a love of books in your kids in an earlier post here.)

Third book in the series
To me, these books exemplify the best in multicultural literature. They are never preachy or didactic; instead, they focus on characters that nearly any child finds recognizable and interesting and feature strong stories with universal appeal. Long before the American Girls dolls appeared on the scene, they provided a gentle, inviting path into history and caring about people who might come from different backgrounds. And I can only imagine how much they must have meant to Jewish-American children, who at the time had few role models in children's books.

Fourth book in the series
All five books were beautifully illustrated in detailed pen and ink drawings by Helen John, though many of the later paperbacks have illustrations by other artists. Despite searching every which way, I was unable to track down any biographical information about Ms. John, other than a reference to her having been an author as well as illustrator - but then I couldn't find the titles of anything she'd written. If anyone out there knows more about her, I'm dying of curiosity.

Her illustrations added enormously not only to my enjoyment of the books, they really brought the time and place to life for me, by providing information not necessarily clear in the text. Looking these over again made me sad that relatively few middle grade novels today include any illustrations - kids don't outgrow their pleasure and profit from pictures when they begin to read alone.
Illustration by Helen John from chapter "Rainy Day Surprise" in All-of-a-Kind Family
The image above shows a scene from one of my favorite chapters. Papa, who has a junk shop, has just gotten in a large collection of old books. Before he resells them, he allows the always book-hungry girls to sort through them and choose some to keep. Among the treasures they find is a book of paper dolls, a wonder they hadn't even imagined existed. Here's an excerpt from near the end of the chapter:
With the volumes of Dickens, the book of fairy tales, and The Dolls That You Love parceled out among them, they trooped back to the front of the shop to show Papa their finds.
     "May we keep them all?" Ella asked.
When he said "Yes," they could hardly believe their ears. They never thought to own even one book and now they had twelve. It was too wonderful!

Fifth and final book in the series

Most of my family's copies of these books arrived wrapped in white tissue paper and tied with white ribbon in the giant boxes of Christmas gifts my grandmother sent to our family from her home across the continent in California. Most of the gifts were books obtained from the bookstore where she was a clerk and squirreled away all year until the holidays in a large sandalwood chest she owned. To this day, the sight of red ribbon against white paper or the scent of sandalwood sets my heart beating with anticipation.

Now for the sad part: as I mentioned in the first paragraph, most of these books are no longer in print, and even the old editions are hard to find. What's worse, many have not been in print for years. Most of my copies are pre-1984, the year of doom under CPSIA. Yes, the Consumer Product Safety Improvement Act continues to prohibit all children's books printed before 1984 for use by children, regardless of how miniscule the risk they might pose (see the links in the sidebar for more information about the law and the safety of books). Many libraries have already removed all these older copies from their shelves (and discarded or destroyed them); many used booksellers won't carry them for fear of incurring gigantic fines and criminal penalties; and they are getting harder and harder to find at prices families can afford. I thank God every weekend that the yard sale people still don't seem to have heard of the law.

 I have hope that with a new chairman of the commerce committee (Henry Waxman, former chair, will be replaced when Congress reconvenes) that Congress will finally relent and revise the law (or at least hold hearings on it) - but meanwhile, these precious books continue to fade away. It would be a crime if they were lost altogether. After the holidays, please write again to your senators and congressional representative. (By the way, the stay of enforcement for testing of new, harmless books expires in February - so expect prices of kids' books to rise still further and choice to drop still more if nothing happens legislatively. See this Publisher's Weekly article here.) And maybe we can all persuade Delacourt to re-print them again...

Hope springs eternal in this season.

To end on a more upbeat note, it's clear that many adults still have strong and happy memories of these books. Check out the Amazon reviews about the books, and Anita Silvey's wonderful book-a-day blog post on the books here. You can also read a detailed tribute to Sydney Taylor, who lived a fascinating life (including a stint as a Martha Graham dancer), at the Association of  Jewish Libraries here. Finally, much of what I learned about Sydney Taylor, I gleaned from her thorough biography in Children's Books and Their Creators: An Invitation to the Feast of Twentieth-Century Children's Literature (Houghton Mifflin, 1995), edited by the always fabulous Anita Silvey! (If you love kids' books, it's a great reference book to add to your wish list.)


Wendy Braun said...

I was trying to think of this story the other day, that I, too, loved as a child...I could only recall Mama's Bank Account, Life With Father, Betsy-Tacy, but couldn't remember this one. All childhood favorites! Thanks for nudging my memory! :)

The CPSIA issue is SO CONFUSING and SO FRUSTRATING to me! I finally googled it on SNOPES to try and figure it out. So the vendors/booksellers aren't required by the govt. (yet) to certify that their used books/toys have been tested, BUT they have to ensure that the items they sell meet the new are they supposed to do that without testing the items??? CPSC spokesman Wolfson says they're supposed to go back to the supplier and he KIDDING?? Does he know how thrift stores work?? So all Americans that ever donated used items are supposed to do the testing?? The govt. again is talking out of both sides of its mouth.

Anonymous said...

In addition to the terrific Children's Books and Their Creators, I highly recommend Everything I Need to Know I Learned from a Children's Book. It's just lovely, filled with loving accounts of children's books famous and obscure. It serves as another good argument for further preservation and re-printing of children's titles.

Susan Miller said...

My 8 yr old daughter is making a website about All of a Kind Family. She and her younger sister have pretty much memorized the books, which have been a huge part of our family life!

We are looking for photographs of the family and aren't coming up with much. Do you have any leads?

Carol Baicker-McKee said...

Hi Susan - How wonderful that your daughter is making a website for these great books - and that your family has enjoyed them so much!

I have seen a handful of photos of Ms. Taylor, but have yet to find any of her family. I had hoped that by researching the illustrator I might find some (I wondered if she used family photos for models/inspiration), but alas I continue to come up empty.

The one lead I can offer is this site:
There are no photos of the family there, but there IS a comment from her granddaughter; perhaps you can get in touch with her.

I've seen some references to an upcoming biography, but have never come across it.

Good luck with your research. Please let me know if you manage to track down some photos. (And I'd love to visit your daughter's website when it's ready.)

Carol Baicker-McKee said...

Oops - I meant a comment from her niece, not her granddaughter. Sorry.

Also, the comment is unfortunately anonymous. I think you'll have to leave a comment of your own and hope she gets back to you.

Sydney's daughter's married name is Joanne Taylor Marshall, but I was not able to find her through a quick google search. Perhaps you will have more luck!

Susan Miller said...

Thanks so much for your information! I will let you know what we find.