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Sydney Taylor's All-of-a-Kind Family Revolutionized Jewish Children's Literature

September 19, 2021 | by Carol Ungar

Warm, intimate and full of fun, I adopted Taylor’s fictional family as my own make-believe family.

As a kid my favorite books were Sydney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family Series. To me and thousands of other children, her stories about an observant Jewish immigrant family on New York’s Lower East Side were both enchanting and inspiring.

The much-loved children’s author is the subject of the new biography, “From Sarah to Sydney" (the writer's name used to be Sarah Brenner). Written by the late literature scholar June Cummins, the book is a meticulously researched labor of love.

Cummins immersed herself in her subject over a period of two decades, tracking down Taylor’s friends, relatives and personal associates, and making numerous visits to Library of Congress, the Sydney Taylor archive at the University of Minnesota and to the home of Taylor’s daughter Joanne to read through thousands of dusty letters, diaries and documents.

In 1951, Sydney Taylor won the Charles W. Follett Award for her writing.

During the final years of writing Cummins developed ALS and gradually lost motor function until she could no longer type. Assisted by her husband and close friend Alexandra Dunietz, Cummins continued writing, using special software which allowed her to write by blinking her eyes. According to Dunietz, working on the book gave Cummins a sense of purpose, brightening what might have been a very bleak time in her life. Tragically Cummins passed away before the book's publication, never to revel in its widespread critical acclaim.

Cummins points out that the All-of-a-Kind Family books – there were eventually five – represented a revolution in literature for Jewish children. Until that point Jewish books were mostly about the holidays or retellings of bible stories, many of them flat and preachy. Written in an engaging style, Taylor's novels were the first kids' books to depict traditional Jewish life in all of its glory.

June Cummins

During the 1950s, publishing an obviously ethnic work was a huge gamble and Taylor’s publisher urged her to tone down’s the stories Jewish tone. Thankfully Taylor mostly resisted. Despite their particularism – or perhaps because of it – the books became huge bestsellers. The first volume came out during the 1950s and the series has remained in print ever since.

Taylor’s plot points, more heart-warming than exciting, include holidays like Sukkot and Simchat Torah, lost library books, the joys of eating candy in bed, the birth of a baby brother and marriage of the oldest sister. Unlike contemporary kids lit, Mama and Papa play a leading role and are depicted as both wise and kind.

#Even though she wasn't observant, Taylor's novels were the first kids' books to depict traditional Jewish life in all of its glory.

Reading these stories as a child, All-of-a-Kind Family books offered me an immensely appealing alternative reality. My Holocaust survivor parents were loving but preoccupied with the immense challenge reestablishing themselves in a new country, and lacking sisters, cousins and even friendly neighbors, I spent a great deal of time by myself. Warm, intimate and full of fun, I adopted Taylor’s fictional family as my own make-believe family, with Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertrude as my imaginary sisters. Taylor's books sold me on the joys of large family life.

Cummins quotes a 1952 radio interview in which Taylor says, “In a large family we got the best possible preparation for living in the adult world. We learned to cooperate, to divide the work and get it done.”

Cummins points out how deeply ironic it was that the success of the books turned Taylor, who was not at all religiously observant, into a spokeswoman for the glories of traditional Jewish life. She quotes a fan letter Taylor received from a reader who convinced her family to hold a Passover seder, “their first ever,” followed up by reading of sections from the books.

Taylor never lost her love for the Judaism she practiced as a child, but because her husband was so fiercely anti-religious her own family lived “like atheists." As she grew older, her nostalgia grew even stronger. Cummins quotes a letter by Taylor to her daughter recalling her father at High holiday time: “I remember papa saying I will pray for you. Who will pray for us now?" she asks.

That daughter, Taylor’s only child, Joanne, intermarried, later divorced and never remarried. Taylor’s lack of grandchildren was one of her great sorrows.

Yet Taylors writing became the catalyst for explosive growth in Jewish children’s literature. Back in the 1950s when the first All-of-a-Kind Family was published, the Jewish Book Council's list of Jewish kids' books barely spanned eight pages. Today the list is 300 pages long and the Sydney Taylor Book Award recognizes the best in Jewish children's literature.

Although she lacks physical descendants, Taylor’s books have brought her an ever-increasing spiritual progeny – the many of us who were inspired by her works to live as her family once did.

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