Growing up, I read the book, All of a Kind Family, and the following sequels by Sydney Taylor countless times. Without a doubt it was my favorite series, and I connected in a profound way to the story of a Jewish family with five daughters at the turn of the century on the Lower East Side of New York. Even though the setting was different, I was the youngest of three daughters.
“Why do you keep reading the same book?” My father asked as I curled up on the couch, holding the worn and discolored pages of the book.
We both loved to read, he’d be sitting in his armchair reading newspapers, folding and bending the pages just so. Although it was left unsaid, I sensed that he would’ve preferred for me to move onto other books. But I was already immersed, and I’d just shrug my shoulders and continue reading, always finding another new piece of information or another scene to imagine.
All of a Kind Family transported me to another world, to a simpler time and to another warm and loving family. Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertie got into all sorts of fabulous mischief, argued and made up, celebrated the Jewish holidays and had so much fun together. When their brother Charlie was born at the end of the book, their Papa was overcome with emotion and in disbelief after having five girls—but the girls still ruled the day. Mama and Papa didn’t have much money; however, there was an abundance of love, understanding, and caring for each of their children who had such different and distinct personalities. Those personalities rang true and reminded me of my own older sisters who, at that time, were away in college. I missed them, especially on Shabbat when it seemed just too quiet.
As a child, I didn’t realize that my habit of rereading favorite books was actually positive and strengthened my comprehension skills. It didn’t bother me that my friends were reading an impressive array of books, I was looking for the way a book made me feel and to relate to the characters. Through rereading, I’d also learn new vocabulary from the context. With each sister I had a different connection and wondered what I’d do in her shoes. Even though Gertie and I were both the “babies” of the family, there were situations when I empathized more with Ella, Henny, Sarah or Charlotte.
Now, as a reading and language arts teacher, one of my mantras is “good readers are re-readers.” Many students tend to rush through reading as if it were a relay race, and at the end proclaim, “Done!” To this I say, “Okay, you’ve done the first draft reading, and now let’s fill in the picture with colors. Let’s discuss the main characters, find the theme or main idea, compare and contrast characters, and by all means reread!”
“How would you handle the situation if you were the character?”
“What do you think will happen next?”
“Can you visualize a scene?”
One of my favorite exercises is for students to revisit the text and highlight their “golden words and paragraphs,” which are elements of the stories that are most descriptive and filled with juicy adjectives.
A few years ago, we were reading a nonfiction book about museums. The students began talking about the museums they had visited; several had been to local museums such as the Museum of Natural History and the Metropolitan Museum of Art. Then as we began to discuss important artists like, “Leonardo”….. one of my students cut me off before I could utter the last name.
“Oh, I know all about Leonardo DiCaprio,” he said confidently. What seemed like a digression from the story about the artist Leonardo da Vinci was actually a connection and that’s a good foundation for comprehension.
At times, my mind wanders back to the times when my father and I sat together reading and the conversation that could have ensued. Although we enjoyed spending time reading together, if he had asked me to tell him some details about the book, which character appealed the most to me, or even picked up the book to read as well, it probably could have been a memorable discussion.
Next time your child curls up on the couch with a book, ask those questions, have that discussion, because it’s a chance to open up a door you both won’t forget.
Esther Kook is a Teaneck resident. She’s a teacher and a freelance writer.
By Esther Kook