Every year at about this time, we see a slew of new holiday picture books arrive on shelves. This year, there is a new offering that is one of the best I’ve seen in years—Emily Jenkins’ All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky. This picture book is based on the classic children’s books written by Sydney Taylor between 1951 and 1978.
During the course of her career, Taylor wrote five children’s books in what was called the All-of-a-Kind Family series. Trained as an actor and modern dancer (she worked with the prestigious Martha Graham Dance Company), Taylor was inspired to write a children’s book at the birth of her daughter in 1935. Taylor herself had grown up in a large family—there were five girls total, followed by the birth of three boys—yet her daughter was her only child. So, she told her stories about her large Jewish family, wrote them down, and eventually they were published. Fast forward to today, and the Sydney Taylor Book Award is given annually by the Association of Jewish Libraries in honor of Taylor—and to celebrate the best in Jewish children’s literature.
Even if you are not familiar with Taylor’s five All-of-a-Kind stories, you may very well fall in love with Jenkins’ and Zelinsky’s new picture book, inspired by Taylor’s stories. It’s the first night of Hanukkah in 1912 on New York’s Lower East Side, and Sarah and her four-year-old sister Gertie are excited, because they know their immediate future involves latkes with applesauce—not to mention the lighting of the shamash and the first candle on the menorah. The pair heads head home to their three sisters, Gertie nearly bursting with excitement. But she is met with disappointment when her mother won’t allow her to use the potato peeler (too sharp), use the grater (also sharp), chop onions (too dangerous), or add eggs to the hot skillet on the stove (the grease is too hot). “Why does Mama do everything without me?” Gertie asks her sister Ella. She follows this with a genuine fit and is sent to her room.
One of this book’s strengths is Jenkins’ ability to bring us the particulars of this family celebrating a Jewish holiday in a story that also manages to be universal. What over-enthusiastic four-year old wouldn’t be able to relate to the inability to keep herself in check on a night of family, feasting, and gingersnaps? Temper tantrums are something to which any child, anywhere, in any decade can relate. Best of all, Gertie’s father shows up in her room—just when Gertie thinks she won’t be able to take any more of the solitude (“Will Mama ever call for Gertie?” Jenkins writes, as Gertie hears laughing and singing from the kitchen)—to acknowledge her bad day, bring her back into the family’s fold, and offer to let Gertie light the menorah.
Zelinsky’s illustrations play with perspective and scale to bring focus to the emotional rollercoaster of the evening, as well as the crowded but comfy nature of the family’s living arrangements; this gives the artwork an immediacy that is quite effective. In one spread, we see the table as Gertie would see it; it’s as if we as readers are standing right behind her. We are placed over the stove to look down at the hot skillets, and we can see Ella hug Gertie to her, doing her best to protect her sister. We see Gertie’s outburst from above; her left leg raised mid-air, about to fall loudly to the wooden floor, is the apex of this domestic drama. And at the end Zelinsky places us right at the family table, right next to Gertie’s mother, leaning in to give her daughter a kiss. We are often right in the center of the action and can’t help but feel invested in Gertie’s story.
In a closing note about the artwork, Zelinsky writes about letting the story’s emotional arc dictate his style. Instead of delicate lines, he explains, Gertie’s “passionate nature” called for looser, rougher ones. “Realistic space didn’t reflect her sense of place in the world,” he adds. He also considered the greater art world of the time period in which this story was set:
“Though American illustration and popular art of the 1910s remained
traditional, an art movement that would become known as Expressionism
was growing in Europe and elsewhere, in which artists tried rough brush-
work, wild perspective, and other strategies to heighten emotions in a way
classical representation could not. I liked the idea of linking Gertie and her
family to this budding world of creativity.”
Taylor, a closing note in the book explains, was the first children’s book author to publish books about Jewish children that reached child readers of other religions. Perhaps this joyous new adaptation will even bring those older books to a new generation of children.
Julie Danielson (Jules) conducts interviews and features of authors and illustrators at Seven Impossible Things Before Breakfast, a children's literature blog primarily focused on illustration and picture books.
ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY HANUKKAH. Text copyright © 2018 by Allenby & Co., LLC. Illustrations © 2018 by Paul O. Zelinsky and reproduced by permission of the publisher, Schwartz & Wade Books, New York.