The decision to revive Sydney Taylor’s classic All-of-a-Kind Family for contemporary readers is a bold one, calling for artistic conviction and maybe even chutzpah. The children’s series is iconic in its depiction of a Jewish, Eastern European immigrant family living in New York’s Lower East Side. While All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah is a picture book, with less text than Taylor’s originals, Jenkins supports her poetic, description-rich sentences with as much historical authenticity as did Taylor. Jenkins and Zelinsky have created a work of great beauty that both pays homage to and expands upon the beloved series.
The five sisters — Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie — are all participants in this tale of preparing for Hanukkah. Sarah, the serious middle sister who All-of-a-Kind readers will remember for her love of the library, is paired here with Gertie, the realistically-portrayed, resentful, and rebellious youngest child. Gertie isn’t allowed to chop onions or peel potatoes to make latkes because the required tools are too sharp. Her older sister Henny’s practical observation that “Chopping onions is the worst of all jobs” may be true in a literal sense, but what four-year-old wants to hear “You’re lucky. You don’t have to do anything. You can just play all the time”? Jenkins captures the tough reality of sibling relationships with brief but resonant words, almost like those of a play. Similarly, Mama’s quiet authority is communicated with lines like “I will call you when it is time to say the blessings…Until then, I don’t want to hear anything more.”
Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind books were illustrated by four different, outstanding artists, allowing Zelinsky more flexibility in designing his own portraits of the family and their urban immigrant setting. In this new telling, the characters have sharp, more ethnic, features and scenes take place from a variety of interesting perspectives. The high-buttoned boots that an angry Gertie stamps with look ready to shatter the wood floorboards, as she clearly wishes they could. A few pages later, we are at floor level with her as she hides under a bed, sulking; the two-page spread is a child’s view of despair. The book’s last illustration is a view of the family eating together, as seen through a window. The blazing first night candles of the menorah are the initial focus, drawing the reader into the family scene. Each pane of the window contains a different segment of the joyous whole.
The book’s back matter also deserves mention. A glossary of Yiddish and Hebrew words is followed by thoughtful notes from the author and illustrator reflecting on the process of composing their work. Jenkins discusses Taylor in the context of her time and adds personal anecdotes about her connection to All-of-a-Kind Family; Zelinsky explains some of his artistic influences including popular American illustration styles of the 1910s, European Expressionism, and the uneven texture of a good latke. There is also an excellent list of sources.
All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah is highly recommended for readers ages 4 – 10, but also for all adults who remember Taylor’s books with gratitude for offering, in Jenkins’s words, “a mirror for their own traditions on the page.”
Emily Schneider writes about literature, feminism, and culture for Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.