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All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah: Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour

Welcome to the first stop on the 2019 Sydney Taylor Book Award Blog Tour! Author Emily Jenkins and illustrator Paul O. Zelinsky were kind enough to answer my questions about All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah (Schwartz & Wade/Random), this year’s Gold Medal winner in the Younger Readers category. All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah is a meticulously researched, beautifully written and illustrated original picture book about the characters in Sydney Taylor’s classic middle-grade All-of-a-Kind Family books (which, in turn, were based on Taylor’s own family). Those books hold a special place in my heart…and now so does this story of left-out youngest sister Gertie and how Papa’s coaxing — and menorah-lighting and a latke feast — make the first night of Hanukkah, 1912, a happy one after all. 

Visit the Association of Jewish Libraries blog to see where the other gold and silver medalists will be interviewed over the next few days. 

SF: Emily, where did the idea come from to tell a new story about the All-of-a-Kind sisters? And why a Hanukkah story?

Emily Jenkins. Photo: Heather Weston

EJ: My editor, Anne Schwartz, invited me to do it and I jumped at the chance! Taylor’s books often featured holidays, and some of the most beloved chapters are centered on them: building the succah for Succos; Ella performing as Purim jester; the Passover where everyone but Henny has scarlet fever. There wasn’t an iconic story about Hanukkah, however (though it does appear in the books). I felt like there was some room for me to carve out a fresh narrative.  

SF: How did you decide to use the present tense?

EJ: I often write in present tense. I think it makes stories feel immediate to young readers, and it works especially well when the subject is historical and readers might be inclined to feel like the story isn’t relatable. 

SF: Paul, how did you choose the book’s illustration style?

POZ: I don’t really feel like I did the choosing; the pictures kind of evolved in the way that they did, with the heavy black outline and the rough coloring, and I was far from certain that it was the right choice to make. But I wasn’t managing to do anything else. In the end I decided that this sort of drawing was getting at the strong emotions in the story, and what might have seemed like a more typical style of art for the early twentieth century could have felt too tame. The illustrations are entirely digital, incidentally. They aren’t even digital elaborations on top of scanned drawings; I drew everything with my digitizing tablet. 

SF: You both put a huge amount of research into a book that arguably could’ve sold on the nostalgia factor. Why was it so important to get it right?

EJ: This book should stand on its own. Picture book readers very likely haven’t encountered All-of-a-Kind Family yet! And for a Hanukkah story to reach non-Jewish readers, as Taylor’s books did, that means offering some explanation of the holiday. The history of the Lower East Side is such an important part of our immigrant story as a nation, I wanted to include that, too. So most of my research went into writing back matter that would contextualize the story for both kids and adults.  

Paul O. Zelinsky

POZ: What’s the fun of making pictures for a book about a certain time and place without finding out what you can learn about that time and place? Besides, this is a very special case. There are lots of All-of-a-Kind Family fans who care, rightfully, about whether this family and their milieu are dealt with in a true and accurate fashion. I couldn’t ignore those expectations; I had at least to try for accuracy. I’m sure I got any number of things wrong anyway. 

SF: What are your own experiences with the All-of-a-Kind Family books?

EJ: I read them multiple times growing up — they were particular favorites. And my eldest daughter became obsessed with them at age four, so for about two years, I or my spouse read a chapter aloud every single night! It was an honor to get to write a new story with these characters. 

POZ: I didn’t know the books growing up, but my wife knew about them and made sure our two daughters read them as children. The girls loved them, and still do. When I was trying to figure out the references in the chapter books to help my visual representation of the apartment in All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah, I consulted with my younger daughter Rachel (now grown and married), who impressed me greatly with her command of the material.

SF: What discovery in the process of creating the book surprised you most?

EJ: Paul’s illustrations! He is a mercurial artist in the best possible way, creating a new style for almost every book he creates. Therefore, I had no idea what the book would look like when he signed on to do the pictures — but I had total faith. I love how his illustrations look completely different from the pictures in the original chapter books, but at the same time, the characters and their home look absolutely right to readers familiar with Taylor’s stories.  

POZ: In the course of my research I was surprised to find out that the real-life house where the young Sydney Taylor lived, and where her stories took place, is not quite within the borders of what we now think of as the Lower East Side, but in an adjacent neighborhood called Alphabet City. I was also delighted to be able to make contact with Sydney Taylor’s biographer, or actually the writer who took on the task of finishing up (the late) scholar June Cummins’s almost-complete biography after Cummins grew too ill to continue, and from Alexandra Dunietz I learned all kinds of fascinating things about the family, which will become public knowledge when that book gets published (scheduled for Fall, 2020). One detail I found fascinating is that a young cousin (whose family Mama, Papa, and baby Ella stayed with when they arrived) soon after began a tremendously successful career in vaudeville, and other family members also went on to perform, including Sydney Taylor herself, as an actress with the Lenox Hill Players. 

SF: Do you both have siblings? Where are you in the lineup — were you in Gertie’s left-out position, or did you live with someone who was?

EJ: My sister is twenty-three years younger than me, so neither! I always identified with Sarah, who is bookish and sensitive — and admired Henny, who is rebellious and cool.  

POZ: I’m in the middle: two years behind my sister and four ahead of my brother. I didn’t at all think my brother was like Gertie, getting left out of things, but he very well might have been! However, I wonder if everybody doesn’t feel like Gertie in that sense a fair amount of the time. 

SF: Paul, tell us about your All-of-a-Kind shirt. Is it one-of-a-kind? (If not, where can we find your Etsy shop?)

POZ: Glad you noticed! I’ve been wearing an All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah shirt when going around to speak about the book. I will definitely be wearing one when the Sydney Taylor Book Awards are presented next June [at the Association of Jewish Libraries Conference in the Los Angeles area].  

I own two one-of-a-kind All-of-a-Kind shirts because after coming up with several patterns and not being able to decide among them, I had two very different shirts made for me by a tailor. The shirts aren’t publicly available, but the fabric is — the pattern of either shirt, or of several other latke designs I made as well. They are on the website Spoonflower.com, and searching that site for “Zelinsky” should make mine visible.

The patterns were mostly made out of the spot drawings I drew to allow Lee Wade, who designed this book, to decorate the extra parts, like the notes page and the jacket flaps. For what it’s worth, I’ve now got close to thirty designs on Spoonflower, based on about twelve books. If somebody goes there and orders one, I get notified (and I receive a tiny share of the price), so I know that almost nobody orders my patterns almost ever! But every now and then, someone goes in and marks one of them as a “favorite,” and I appreciate that. 

Shoshana Flax About Shoshana Flax

Shoshana Flax, assistant editor for The Horn Book, Inc., is a former bookseller and holds an MFA in Writing for Children from Simmons College. She is a member of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee.

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Comments

  1. Thanks for sharing this excellent interview! I didn’t know about the upcoming Sydney Taylor biography and I’m very glad to hear it!

  2. Excellent article! I know you’ll also enjoy Emily and Paul chatting about the book and making latkes (Paul wore his All-of-a-Kind Family Hanukkah shirt!) on KidLit TV’s StoryMakers in the Kitchen episode: https://kidlit.tv/StoryMakersInTheKitchenEmilyJenkinsPaulOZelinsky

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