This charming story, set in the early 1900s, teems with the flavor and atmosphere of New York City’s Lower East Side. Third-grade Rachel helps with family chores and reluctantly watches her tag-along younger sister Hannah; meanwhile Papa is running his store, Bubbie is running the house, and Mama is trying as hard as she can to make a success of her new dressmaking business.
Each penny earned, each penny spent, looms large in the economy of the time. Rachel’s parents cannot afford to buy the girls brand new clothing for Rosh Hashanah, but her mother has promised she will sew new buttons onto the fronts of last year’s skirts to give their outfits an updated look. Rachel is disappointed to have nothing new to wear on the holiday but, when she finds three spectacular glass buttons with roses inside, she is cheered by their unusual beauty and feels they will be just the thing to make her skirt look special on the holiday. Even more importantly, wearing these wonderful buttons will distinguish her from her annoying, copy-cat younger sibling whose holiday skirt looks exactly the same. There is only one problem; the buttons are more expensive than she had anticipated and there isn’t enough money to purchase them. Rachel’s resourceful plan to acquire the buttons is filled with setbacks and challenges, but her determination and creativity are strong and she painstakingly progresses toward the goal of earning the few additional pennies she needs. Then her little sister gets lost and Rachel realizes that new buttons, no matter how special, are not the important things in life, especially when compared to family.
With simple, easy-to-read language, short pithy chapters, and without any heavy didactic spin, the story emphasizes family values, responsibility, and an appreciation of what one has rather than what one is lacking. The Lower East Side, with its immigrant population filled with dreams of a better life, comes alive with vitality and verve. The black and white illustrations enhance both the story and the setting.
Reminiscent of All-of-a-Kind Family, this appealing book will help young readers learn a bit about New York’s Jewish history and more than a bit about family love, wise advice, and community warmth.
Michal Hoschander Malen is the editor of Jewish Book Council’s young adult and children’s book reviews. A former librarian, she has lectured on topics relating to literacy, run book clubs, and loves to read aloud to her grandchildren.