Without a doubt, Sydney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family” had more of an impact on me than Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House on the Prairie.” Turns out I’m not alone, as 2014 saw the re-release of the entire book series, originally published between 1951 and 1978. The Jewish Women’s Archive is hosting a celebration tea in honor of the recently re-released series with publisher Lizzie Skurnick and local novelists Tova Mirvis and Allegra Goodman on Sunday, Jan. 25, at 2 p.m. in Newton. The women will be discussing the books’ impact and reading their favorite passages. I had a chance to chat with Lizzie about her choice to republish the series and why she thought it was so important to do so.
What was it about “All-of-a-Kind Family” that had you wanting to publish the entire series for a new audience?
I’m lucky enough to know the stories and what life was like for Jews at the turn of the 20th century, first-hand, from my grandmother. She used to tell me about Ellis Island. Like Lena, she was used to being called a “greenhorn.” She worked in the garment industry. She moved to the Bronx with her extended family. She taught me the songs of Jewish theater, and what “zaftig” actually means.
I also saw her photographs and know them by heart: her in a New York classroom; posing in a formal picture; with a friend in a park in Argentina, the country she went to when U.S. quotas were not accepting Jews. I grew up eating rye bread from the Jewish bakery around the corner from my grandmother’s Bronx apartment and went to a Workmen’s Circle shul myself, where I learned Yiddish!
But there is no way our children, or those who didn’t grow up with Jewish relatives from New York, can ever know that story first-hand. And it’s a wonderful and important story, both of an unforgettable family and of a period of New York and Jewish history. This series is the Jewish “Little House on the Prairie,” and when I heard that the publisher only planned to release the series as an e-book, I actually thought to myself, “This is a shande!” How were we going to have these conversations with our own children, and their children? Where were our photo albums?
Young adult literature is having a moment. But it didn’t always used to be like this. What happened?
We look at our children and teens and the young adult literature they love and think it’s the first boom, the first moment, but books beyond Nancy Drew actually thrived in the 1970s and 1980s—books by Judy Blume and Norma Klein, Bette Green, Brenda Wilkinson, Patricia Clapp, Lois Duncan, Paula Danziger and many others. These books also talked about religion, family and growing up, about the feminist movement and about the Jewish experience, as well as many other groups. These books also preserved the history of our country through wonderful stories, which is why I’m trying to bring them all back. I like dystopias as much as anyone, but there are books about our actual country and how girls grew up, not our country in some disastrous future.
Do you have a recommendation for something similar to read for the “All-of-a-Kind Family” fans out there?
We’re especially happy to have just published another entry in this tradition: Lila Perl’s “Isabel’s War,” a never-published manuscript about the Holocaust from the perspective of a Jewish girl in the Bronx in the 1940s. She wrote us the sequel, “Lilli’s Quest,” shortly before she died. It’s an amazing story about a girl who survives the Holocaust and comes to America to live with Isabel, and we can’t wait to add to this rich tradition.
For me, the defining story from “All-of-a-Kind Family” is the tea dress. Am I alone?
We are all obsessed with the tea dress! It’s hands-down the story I hear about the most. I have thought about the reason now for years. Here’s my English-major answer: I think it’s because it’s about all the things the series is about: family, friendship, assimilation and hilarious stories. It’s about the closeness of the sisters and family (after all, Henny literally is wearing Ella’s clothes!), and about how Mama knows them well enough to know that it’s Henny who is responsible. But it’s also about assimilation and ingenuity: the tea dress is a metaphor for how the family itself blends in with America—different, but with a wonderful twist that improves us all.
OK, that really is the English-major answer! I also think we all just love to dye clothes. Why else did we have all those bleached jeans and tie-dyed shirts?
Four questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!