52 Authors: Week 35 - Sydney Taylor
When I wrote the post about Anne Pellowski’s Latch Valley Farm series (the Catholic Little House books), I said that I would write another about a sort of Jewish Little House books. This is it.
When I was about 8 years old, The All-of-a-Kind Family books by Sydney Taylor were my favorites. I fell in love with them the moment I first saw them in the library. They were larger than any of the other chapter books (about 9” x 7.5”) and the covers had full-color illustrations both front and back. This was quite unique for the the time--mid '50s. I have a large collection of children’s ex-library books and none of the covers approach the quality of the artwork on these books. And the inside of the books was even better.
The All-of-a-Kind Family series begins about 25 years later than the Pellowski and Wilder books. It is set in the early 20th century. The woods and creek banks and windswept plains of the Little House books and the beautiful hills and valleys of the Latsch Valley books are far away from the family of this series, who live on the East Side of New York City.
The East Side was not pretty. There was no grass. Grass couldn’t very well grow on slate sidewalks or in cobblestoned gutters. There were no flowers except those one saw in the shops of the few florists. There were no tall trees lining the streets. There were tall gas lampposts instead. There was no running brook in which the children might splash on hot summer days. But there was the East River. Its waters stretched out wide and darkly green, and it smelt of fish, ships, and garbage.
Like many other families, Mama and Papa and their children lived in the crowded tenement house section of the lower East Side of New York City.
To my eight-year-old self, this would have been almost as exotic as a houseboat in China. (I really wanted to live on a houseboat in China.) We lived on a 13 acre corner lot and our house was surrounded on two sides by fields which ended in tree lines and on the third by a row of trees. I had been to downtown Memphis a few times to department stores, but I had no real conception of what an apartment was, and downtown Memphis in the mid '50s was hardly the East Side of New York at the turn of the century.
Mama and Papa (whose names we don’t know) and their five “steps-and-stairs” daughters (Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie), and finally baby Charlie, are more fortunate than many of the tenement-dwellers on the East Side. Although they have little money to spare, they have a four-room apartment which occupies an entire floor of their building. The reason for their comparative comfort is that Papa has his own business—a junk shop.
The girls love to visit the shop on rainy days and are therefore good friends with the peddlers who do business with Papa: Polack, Joe (a swarthy Italian), Charlie (a young, handsome man whose presence among the peddlers is somewhat of a mystery, and Picklenose.
Poor old Picklenose! His face would have been most ordinary had he not been blessed with such an enormous object in the middle of it. It was a bulbous nose, and not only did it glow red, but on its top grew a pickle-shaped wart which had given him his name.
There is also joy to be found sometimes in searching through other people’s cast offs, for instance, the unwanted books from a rich young man’s collection. There’s a book called Dolls That You Love with stories about the dolls on one side and paper dolls on the facing page (Oh, how I loved paper dolls), and a complete set of Dickens! I probably didn’t appreciate the Dickens at the time.
There is nothing especially exciting or adventurous about the stories told in these books. They are made up of the small, everyday events in the life of a happy family. The parents are loving and wise, which seems a clichė, but they are, of course, the best kind of parents to have. The children have their disagreements, but they take care of each other. The family isn’t always happy. Sometimes there is severe illness, disobedience that pains both parent and child, young men leaving for war, and a single mother dies. All-in-all though, the stories are happy ones.
My very favorite chapter is called, “Who Cares If It’s Bedtime.” The two youngest girls, Charlotte and Gertie, having used their spending money (a penny a day) to buy some candy and a bag of broken crackers, smuggle their treats into their bed to be enjoyed when they are supposed to be sleeping.
The room was in darkness save for the gas light which shone from the kitchen through the opened bedroom door. Lucky for them! One look at their guilty faces, and Mama would have known that something was up. But Mama suspected nothing...Tucking in the featherbed, Mama said good night to all and went out, shutting the bedroom door behind her
The fun could begin at last! Charlotte directed because the game was hers.
“First we take a chocolate baby, and we eat only the head.” They bit off the heads and chewed away contentedly.
“Now the feet.” That was hard. The tiny feet were very close to the legs but they did the best they could.
“Let’s gobble the rest up altogether.” That was a good order. They gobbled away.
Charlotte continued. “A cracker now.” They fished about in the dark. “We’ll take a small bite just to find out what kind it is.”
They each took a small bite. “Mine is a lemon snap, I think,” Gertie said. “What’s yours?”
“Mine’s a ginger. We have to nibble along the side of the piece of cracker as if we were mice and we have to do it until I say stop.”
And the games go on for another page and a half. It was the greatest desire of my life to have a bag full of broken, different-flavored crackers (Who knew there were different-flavored crackers?!) and taste them one by one with a little sister in our bed at night. Not my little sister, of course. My little sister was pretty much a nuisance and it was bad enough to have to share my room with her, much less my bed. I wanted a little sister named Gertie. My mother’s name was Gertie and I’d never before known that a child could have that name. I was glad, though, that I wasn’t a child with that name.
The very best part of these books, though, was the description of the Jewish feasts. There was one about the solemn celebration of Passover, and one about Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement when you had to fast all day—really fast and ask God to forgive you for your sins. I wanted to light the menorah for the Festival of Lights. I wanted to dress up for Purim and go from door to door singing,
Today is Purim
Tomorrow no more,
Give me a penny
And show me the door.
But most of all, I wanted my father to build a Succah for us to live in during the Feast of Booths.
Sydney Taylor was born Sarah Brenner in 1904 in New York City. Her parents and older sister, Ella, immigrated to the United States in 1900, and the All-of-a-Kind Family books were the stories of her family. Ms. Taylor was the middle daughter. There are five books in the series: All-of-a-Kind Family, More All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, and Ella All-of-a-Kind Family. The first three were written in the 1950s and the latter two in the 1970s. It may not surprise you to find out that the first three are the best. Naturally, I didn’t read the last two when I was young because they weren’t written, and it was only when I was reading the books to my children that I came across them. Sadly, I really didn’t like the last one very much at all.
—Janet Cupo has been commenting on this blog for about as long as it's existed, and has her own excellent blog at The Three Prayers.
I was glad to learn that "Sydney Taylor" is a pseudonym. I thought it was strange that a Jewish child in that time and place would have such a WASP-y name.
Posted by: Mac | 08/30/2015 at 11:07 PM
When I saw 'Syndey Taylor' I thought it would be another detective author I never heard of.
I read the first two books about age 9. I remember the different flavoured crackers! I also remember the potato pancakes.
When I came back to NYC one of the first things I did was to buy knish and potato pancakes.
My strongest memory from the books is the girl who is always studying for a history test.
Posted by: Grumpy on Manhattan | 08/31/2015 at 04:43 AM
It's funny that you should say that, Maclin, because the only woman I have ever known who was named Sydney was my aunt-by-marriage, and she is the quintessential WASP. I keep wondering why the heck Sydney Taylor picked that name.
Posted by: Janet | 08/31/2015 at 06:43 AM
Grumpy, I'm glad to know you read those books.
Posted by: Janet | 08/31/2015 at 06:43 AM
Maybe she thought that sort of name would be more saleable.
Posted by: Mac | 08/31/2015 at 07:24 AM
I am unlikely to seek these books out and read them but they sound wonderful for young women, and I'm happy to see Dickens mentioned. Growing up in the part of Miami I did, I was fortunate to be surrounded by some Jewish culture. Though not in NYC, the people tended to be from there, or their parents were. This led me to explore writers such as Saul Bellow, Philip Roth etc in my later teen-age years. Another great post about a writer that I would otherwise have never heard of!
Posted by: El Gaucho | 08/31/2015 at 07:56 AM
I don't know why the name strikes me as so very WASP-y. I think it's "Sydney" as a woman's name. I did know a girl in high school with that name--actually "Mary Sydney"--but she was no more WASP-y than any of the rest of us.
Posted by: Mac | 08/31/2015 at 09:07 AM
Yet another author I'd never heard of and would love to have read as a child.
About “Sydney” -- according to this piece, she took that name at the age of 12. Maybe it sounded sophisticated to her, and perhaps the new name was also part of her move away from her Jewish way of life; the article says she became a "fully assimilated" Jew who "no longer keep kosher or observe[d] the Sabbath". Or maybe she thought it would serve her better in the world of show biz -- her Wikipedia entry says she acted in a theater group and was also a dancer in the Martha Graham dance troupe.
Posted by: Marianne | 08/31/2015 at 03:31 PM
I had assumed the author had a man's name until hitting a "she".
Posted by: Paul | 08/31/2015 at 04:32 PM
The last book, Ella All-of-a-Kind Family, is about the oldest sister's career as a singer.
I wonder when that assimilation happened. It might explain part of the difference between the 50s books and the 70s books.
Posted by: Janet | 08/31/2015 at 04:39 PM
The occurrence of the '60s between the '50s and the '70s might also help. :-)
American Jews and for that matter Italians and Germans changing their names to something more Anglo was not unusual, but this seems slightly odd because "Sarah Brenner" doesn't strike me as particularly "ethnic." Maybe she was *really* eager to be assimilated.
Posted by: Mac | 08/31/2015 at 09:28 PM
I loved the All-of-a-Kind Family books, too, and so do my children. There's one part that always bugged me, though: the penny-a-day pocket money is out of line with the rest of the insistence on sparse resources. The girls buy their father a cup that he deems extravagant, but they only needed to save their pennies for a week. A one-dollar lost library book is a calamity, but it's only three weeks' worth of allowance. Etc.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 08/31/2015 at 10:03 PM
Speaking of changing from a German name, I saw on Mary Fahl's Wikipedia page that she was born Mary Faldermeyer.
Posted by: Marianne | 08/31/2015 at 10:05 PM
Interesting. I sort of half-consciously associated the song I posted with the name and assumed "Fahl" was some sort of Irish.
Posted by: Mac | 08/31/2015 at 11:16 PM
The occurrence of the '60s between the '50s and the '70s might also help. :-)
Yep. That was my implication in the original post. It probably had something to do with her assimilation, too.
Posted by: Janet | 09/01/2015 at 06:50 AM
Anne-Marie, The penny a day for the library book would have been over 3 months for Sarah. It was only because her sisters helped that it would only take 3 weeks.
I got the idea from the fact that the book talks about their apartment being better than others that they had to be very frugal, but they weren't living in penury.
Posted by: Janet | 09/01/2015 at 06:54 AM
I was thinking of the pennies from the parents' perspective. They give their kids 35 cents each week of disposable income, but Mama says there's no money to help Sarah pay for the book. It seems out of whack to me for a budget to be flush enough for the allowance, but too tight for the library book.
But this is a quibble. I do love the books. All-of-a-Kind Family was my sister's first chapter book of her very own; she received it the day I received Little House on the Big Woods. Many years later, we were startled to realize how much of our knowledge of Judaism came from the Sidney Taylor books.
Posted by: Anne-Marie | 09/04/2015 at 11:11 AM