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Sydney Taylor

1904 – 1978

by Susan P. Bloom

Like three of her predecessors—Louisa May Alcott, Margaret Sidney, and Laura Ingalls Wilder—Sydney Taylor created a fictional family of such endearing character and loving spirit that her young readers clamored for more titles. In all, five books about the All-of-a-Kind Family were written between 1951 and 1978. The values of family love, charity, wisdom, compassion, and social justice that define Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Family owe their particular flavor to Jewish culture.

After graduating in drama from New York University, she became first an actor with the Lenox Hill Players in New York City from 1925 to 1929, and then a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company from 1930 to 1935. Despite her successful career, she became a full-time wife and mother ten years after her marriage to businessman Ralph Taylor in 1925 and the birth of their only child, Joanne (Jo), in 1935. When Jo was seven, Taylor resumed her interest in the arts, serving as a dance and dramatics counselor at the nonprofit Cejwin Camps.

Although she was to write several other children’s stories as well as plays (which she also directed and choreographed), nothing equaled the invention stimulated by her recollection of her own childhood as the middle child in a household rich in love, learning, and tradition. Eager to comfort Jo, who felt lonely at nighttime in bed, Taylor told her daughter stories about her own growing up in a family where loneliness was unheard of, since five sisters shared the same bedroom. Perhaps it is no irony that Taylor’s daughter was given the same nickname as the beloved hero Jo March in Little Women, another American classic about sisters in a warm, loving family.

As Taylor related her stories to Jo, she was flooded with nostalgia for her childhood, growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, where she was born in 1904. She found herself wanting to record her early history as the child of immigrant parents struggling to make a life for themselves among the many eager, hopeful newcomers to America in the early 1900s. The documentation was entirely personal; as she stated, “Satisfied, I promptly put the manuscript away and the years rolled over it.” Forgotten, too, was her childhood response to the inevitable question, “What do you want to be when you grow up?” She had then answered, “A writer.”

It remained for Taylor’s husband, Ralph, president of Caswell-Massey Company, a firm of chemists and perfumers, to unearth the manuscript when he heard about the Charles W. Follett Award for writing. Unknown to his wife, he submitted All-of-a-Kind Family, which was published in 1951, received the award, and launched Sydney Taylor’s career as writer of children’s fiction. The book also won the 1952 Jewish Book Council Award.

In All-of-a-Kind Family, Mama and Papa love their girls dearly and teach them to be good to one another, to their parents, to their neighbors and friends, and to their faith. Taylor gently integrates the rich traditions and heritage of Judaism into this family’s life: The reader learns about the celebration of Purim, Passover, Sukkot, and Hanukka not as an aside but as a central part of religious Jewish life. Such activities as attending shul, making a sukka, and celebrating the weekly Sabbath are interspersed with all of the kitchen activities typical of an Orthodox Jewish household—rolling dough for teyglekh, making gefilte fish, baking hallah. When the family moves uptown to the Bronx into a predominantly gentile community, Papa and Mama remind their daughters that America promises an opportunity to advance as well as the freedom to retain one’s Jewish roots. If this attention to heritage and learning sounds plodding, Taylor enlivens it always with generosity of spirit and humor. Mama reassures the family by telling them, “You don’t have to worry. … We’ll still be able to buy bagel and lox for Sunday morning breakfast.”

A contemporary reader may approach these books about this kind and gentle family with skepticism. The characters act with predictable innocence and goodness, there is little character development, and stereotypical family roles predominate. World events, including World War I, intrude only slightly into this sunny home. Mama’s place is still in the kitchen, while Papa goes out to work. The birth of a long-awaited son somewhat eclipses the importance of the family’s five energetic, engaging daughters. Even modern trends, such as the entry of women into the work force, cannot change the importance of family. The eldest sister, Ella, who is the focus of the final book in the series, ultimately chooses family over a career, believing that “there’s a kind of contentment in such homely tasks [as washing dishes].” What stands the test of time is Taylor’s magical evocation of a past age when spirituality was a central part of life. We may even grieve that this era is no more.

Sydney Taylor died of cancer on February 12, 1978. The final All-of-a-Kind Family book was published posthumously later that year. It received the first annual Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award, established by the Association of Jewish Libraries in 1979.

SELECTED WORKS BY SYDNEY TAYLOR

All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown. Illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush (1972); All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown. Illustrated by Mary Stevens (1958); All-of-a-Kind Family. Illustrated by Helen John (1951); Danny Loves a Holiday. Illustrated by Gail Owens (1980); The Dog Who Came to Dinner. Illustrated by John E. Johnson (1966); Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family. Illustrated by Gail Owens (1978); More All-of-a-Kind Family. Illustrated by Mary Stevens (1954); Mr. Barney’s Beard. Illustrated by Charles Geer (1961); Now That You Are Eight. Illustrated by Ingrid Fetz (1963); A Papa Like Everyone Else. Illustrated by George Porter (1966).

Bibliography

A Book of Children’s Literature. 3d ed. Edited by Lillian Hollowell (1966); Contemporary Authors. Vols. 77–80. Edited by Frances Carol Locher (1979); Himmel, Maryclare O’Donnell. Children’s Books and Their Creators. Edited by Anita Silvey (1995); Hopkins, Lee Bennett. More Books by More People (1974); Hoyle, Karen Nelson. Twentieth Century Children’s Writers. 4th ed. Edited by Laura Stanley Berger (1995); More Junior Authors. Edited by Muriel Fuller (1963); Something about the Author. Vols. 26, 28. Edited by Anne Commire (1982); Ward, Martha E., et al. Authors of Books for Young People. 3d ed. (1990).

6 Comments

"stereotypical family roles predominate" and " Mama’s place is still in the kitchen, while Papa goes out to work. The birth of a long-awaited son somewhat eclipses the importance of the family’s five energetic, engaging daughters."

I can only say, "So? Who cares?" There's nothing wrong with being a stereotypical family, even if it were true that no other role for women was shown in the books, which it isn't, as others have pointed out in previous comments. And I would say that at the time during which the book occurred (and even today), it was perfectly normal that a man who had only daughters would be jubilant at the birth of a son. Even if it were not still true today, it would be a pretty poor historical story that insisted on imposing present-day attitudes on characters from the past, the more so since that particular present-day attitude, which seems to me to denigrate women who choose to be homemakers, isn't by any means universally held.

The Christmas I was 10, my parents gave me "All of a Kind Family" as my 'book gift'. I read it to the point of wearing it out, and came to value the love and traditions of this family. Now a grandmother with a daughter, son-in-law and four grandchildren living and studying in Israel, I value the love for the Jewish people and the lovely State of Israel very much, and consider this book the foundation of my love for this people. It has been my privilege to visit Israel three times, and formed several deep friendships there. These people taught me the concept of 'blessing' and love. I pray for the peace of Jerusalem and Israel often. The book shows what a joy family should be, a model to the present generation which knows mostly of fractured family and relationships. The famous author, CS Lewis, once wrote a letter to a woman questioning 'traditional' views of women, that what is earning money all about but to create comfort in a home, a place for loving relationships to occur. To be the creator and keeper of the home is the highest calling on earth. How far the human development and family studies 'experts' have missed the mark.

Hello. My name is Nina. I am eight. I'll be nine in January. I like the All of a Kind Family books. They are very cozy. I am making a website about them, and I am hoping I can find more information. I hope I can find out from the niece of Sydney Taylor more about them and if maybe I can see some pictures of them when they were children. Anyone who wants to help, email my mom: susan.fromthewild@gmail.com

Sydney Taylor was my aunt, my grandmother's sister. I remember "Mama and Papa", they were my Grandma Sele and Grandpa Mishan. Mishan was a family hero who sent money he earned in the rags ("shmatte") business to relatives in Europe, to buy them boat tickets to America before the Holocaust. Uncle Ralph was Syd's husband, and he was proud of her, and was always promoting her and supporting the arts. He was a successful businessman with Caswell Massey. He told me once that if he dedicated all of his time to his own art, playing classical recorder, that he would eventually figure out a new way of manufacturing the instrument, and would just end up doing business full time again. On the other hand, he said, if he gave his business to an musician, the person would waste his days playing his instrument and eventually the business would fail, but he'd still be making art. Ralph didn't practice art like his wife, but he loved and supported all artists. He knew the risks and the sacrifice. I'm proud of my family, and although All Of A Kind Family books are highly romanticized accounts, they re-create a lost world, one that many of our Jewish families came through. That sweet, nostalgic world exists just outside of the horror and struggle that Jews have survived, and is part of the reason for our survival.

I'm inclined to agree somewhat with the anonymous comment above. A scene of rag-sellers joking in a room remains vivid today, as does dancing around the Maypole, splitting a penny for candy, and the young men going off to war. While I understood little of the historical context of these scenes, the stories nonetheless served as a gentle, age-appropriate introduction into part of my communal past.

I feel that the interpretation of the content of "All-of-a-kind family" by susan bloom is untrue. it implies that these books are light and skirt issues when in fact this series includes some particularly serious content like the epidemic of 1916, the death of a friend's single parent mother who dies of influenza.. thereby becoming an orphan... Bloom says that there are stereotypes of woman only working at home which is also not true. One of the main characters, Lena, is a woman who works in a factory like so many of her peers as did the woman who died. There is also a character who lost both her son and her husband and now works as a nurse. It is often the graphic nature of how hard those times where that make these books so powerful and historically profound.

How to cite this page

Bloom, Susan P.. "Sydney Taylor." Jewish Women: A Comprehensive Historical Encyclopedia. 20 March 2009. Jewish Women's Archive. (Viewed on July 22, 2017) <https://jwa.org/encyclopedia/article/taylor-sidney>.

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