Sydney Taylor’s One Family Revolutionized Jewish Children’s Literature

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

As a child my favorite books were Sydney Taylor’s All-in-one family Series. For me and for thousands of other children, her stories of a practicing Jewish immigrant family on the Lower East Side of New York City were both enchanting and inspiring.

The beloved children’s author of books is the subject of the new biography, “From Sarah to Sydney” (writer’s name was Sarah Brenner). Written by the late literary scholar June Cummins, the book is a meticulously researched labor of love.

Cummins immersed herself in her subject over a two-decade span, researching Taylor’s friends, relatives and personal associates, and making numerous visits to the Library of Congress, Sydney Taylor Archives at the University of Minnesota and at the home of Taylor’s daughter, Joanne, to read thousands of letters, diaries and dusty documents.

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

In the last few years of writing, Cummins developed ALS and gradually lost motor function until she could no longer type. With the help of her husband and close friend Alexandra Dunietz, Cummins continued to write, using special software that allowed her to write with blinking eyes. According to Dunietz, working on the book gave Cummins purpose, illuminating what could have been a very dark time in his life. Cummins tragically passed away before the book’s publication, never rejoicing in its widespread critical praise.

Cummins points out that the All-in-one family the books – there were eventually five – represented a revolution in Jewish children’s literature. Until then, Jewish books were mostly about holidays or telling Bible stories, many of which were flat and moralizing. Written in an engaging style, Taylor’s novels were the first children’s books to portray traditional Jewish life in all its glory.

June Cummins

During the 1950s, publishing an overtly ethnic work was a huge gamble, and Taylor’s editor urged him to tone down the Jewish tone of the stories. Fortunately, Taylor mostly resisted. Despite their particularity – or perhaps because of it – books have become huge bestsellers. The first volume came out in the 1950s and the series has remained in print ever since.

Taylor’s plot points, more heartwarming than exciting, include vacations like Sukkot and Simhat Torah, lost library books, the joys of eating candy in bed, the birth of a baby brother, and the marriage of the older sister. Unlike contemporary lit kids, mom and dad play prominent roles and are portrayed as both wise and kind.

# Even though she was not observant, Taylor’s novels were the first children’s books to portray traditional Jewish life in all its glory.

Reading these stories as a child, All-in-one family books offered me an extremely attractive alternate reality. My Holocaust survivor parents were loving but concerned about the immense challenge of relocating to a new country, and for lack of sisters, cousins, and even friendly neighbors, I spent a lot of time alone. Warm, intimate and fun, I adopted Taylor’s fictional family as my own imaginary family, with Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte and Gertrude as my imaginary sisters. Taylor’s books have sold me the joys of large family life.

Cummins quotes a 1952 radio interview in which Taylor said, “In a large family we were given the best possible preparation for living in the adult world. We have learned to cooperate, to divide the work and to do it.

Cummins points out how deeply ironic it was that the success of the books had made Taylor, who was not at all religious, a spokesperson for the glories of mainstream Jewish life. She quotes a fan letter Taylor received from a reader who convinced her family to hold a Passover seder, “their very first,” followed by a reading of sections of 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 he grew older, his nostalgia grew even stronger. Cummins quotes a letter from Taylor to his daughter remembering her father during the summer vacation: “I remember daddy saying I will pray for you. Who will pray for us now?” she asks.

This daughter, Taylor’s only child, Joanne, married each other, later divorced and never remarried. One of his great sorrows was Taylor’s lack of grandchildren.

Yet Taylor’s writing became the catalyst for the explosive growth of Jewish children’s literature. In the 1950s, when the first All-in-one family was published, the Jewish Book Council’s list of Jewish children’s books was barely eight pages long. Today, the list is 300 pages long and the Sydney Taylor Book Award recognizes the best in Jewish children’s literature.

Although she has no physical descent, Taylor’s books have brought her ever more spiritual offspring – many of us have been inspired by her works to live as her family once did.

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