From Sarah to Syd­ney: The Woman Behind All-of-a-Kind Family

June Cum­mins, Alexan­dra Dunietz

  • Review
By – June 23, 2021

There are few more foun­da­tion­al books in Jew­ish Amer­i­can children’s lit­er­a­ture than the All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series by Syd­ney Tay­lor (19041978). Span­ning the years from 1951 to 1978, each episod­ic nov­el is based large­ly on Taylor’s per­son­al mem­o­ries of grow­ing up on New York City’s Low­er East Side and, lat­er, the Bronx. Yet read­ers have had lit­tle access to infor­ma­tion about the woman who chal­lenged the pre­vail­ing norms of the children’s book world, mak­ing Jew­ish sto­ries avail­able to a wide audi­ence for the first time. June Cum­mins, a schol­ar who devot­ed many years to research­ing and inter­pret­ing Taylor’s life and work, died in 2018, but with the assis­tance of Alexan­dra Duni­etz, we have a com­plete man­u­script that final­ly allows Syd­ney Tay­lor to emerge from obscu­ri­ty. Cum­mins eval­u­ates the con­tra­dic­tions of this daugh­ter of immi­grants, who both embraced the tra­di­tions of her family’s past and reject­ed the lim­i­ta­tions her her­itage often demand­ed. The book’s title reflects the series of trans­for­ma­tions that led Sarah Bren­ner to become Syd­ney Tay­lor, and inte­grates analy­ses of Taylor’s lit­er­ary works into an acces­si­ble and nuanced biography.

Many read­ers might assume that All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly and its sequels are fic­tion­al ver­sions of Syd­ney Taylor’s expe­ri­ences. Sarah Bren­ner grew up with sis­ters named Ella, Hen­ny, Char­lotte, and Ger­tie, exact­ly as in the series. Yet the books are far from lit­er­al tran­scrip­tions of her past. Cum­mins cre­ates a mov­ing metaphor to char­ac­ter­ize Taylor’s approach to lit­er­ary cre­ation. Just as her father, Mor­ris Bren­ner, was a deal­er in recy­cled rags, his daugh­ter Sarah “…was also in the schmat­te busi­ness, if the phys­i­cal mate­r­i­al of the pages of the book are con­sid­ered a kind of rag, and the men­tal mate­r­i­al of the sto­ry a recy­cling of the scraps of her his­to­ry.” While she appro­pri­at­ed events direct­ly from life, she trans­formed them in order to cre­ate a con­sis­tent fic­tion­al world where Jew­ish and Amer­i­can val­ues coex­ist­ed and enriched her characters.

Although both of Taylor’s par­ents were orig­i­nal­ly from East­ern Europe, her moth­er, Cil­ly, grew up in a solid­ly mid­dle-class fam­i­ly in Bre­men, Ger­many. While the Yid­dish lan­guage plays a sig­nif­i­cant role in Taylor’s sto­ries of the Low­er East Side, where many of her neigh­bors spoke a kind of hybridized Eng­lish, Tay­lor her­self grew up with Ger­man as her first lan­guage at home. Although her father spoke Yid­dish, it was Cilly’s iden­ti­fi­ca­tion with the Ger­man lan­guage and cul­ture that defined her child rear­ing, accord­ing to Taylor’s mem­o­ries and Cummins’s analy­sis. Neat­ness, order, and coop­er­a­tion were dom­i­nant val­ues in her home, and the phrase all-of-a-kind”referred not only to the children’s gen­der, but to their iden­ti­cal dress­es and adher­ence to accept­ed norms.

But by the time she was in high school, con­for­mi­ty to her mother’s expec­ta­tions no longer gov­erned Sarah’s life. She decid­ed to use the name Syd­ney, which was more mod­ern and Amer­i­can, as well as less iden­ti­fi­ably fem­i­nine. Tay­lor took class­es at the left­ist Rand School of Social Sci­ence, and became active in the Young People’s Social­ist League, where she met a stu­dent named Ralph Schnei­der, lat­er Amer­i­can­ized to Tay­lor. Accord­ing to at least one of Sydney’s accounts of how she became an author, it was Ralph who sent her pri­vate man­u­script of fam­i­ly sto­ries to Fol­lett Pub­lish­ing Com­pa­ny, where it was accept­ed and grant­ed an award. But their rela­tion­ship was ini­tial­ly fraught with con­flict, as Ralph expressed ambiva­lence about Sydney’s need to pur­sue a career. Tay­lor her­self was ambiva­lent about the need to sub­or­di­nate her ambi­tions to mar­riage and family.

Read­ers eager to learn about the gen­e­sis of All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly will have to wait until the final third of the biog­ra­phy. Cum­mins details Taylor’s ear­li­er careers as a pro­fes­sion­al actress and a dancer with the famed Martha Gra­ham Com­pa­ny, as well as her long asso­ci­a­tion with Cejwin, a Jew­ish sum­mer camp where she became direc­tor of the dra­ma pro­gram. The most enlight­en­ing sec­tion of the book, how­ev­er, is the account of how per­son­al sto­ries that Tay­lor had orig­i­nal­ly nar­rat­ed to her daugh­ter became a last­ing suc­cess with both Jew­ish and non-Jew­ish read­ers. In 1951, when All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly was first pub­lished, books with Jew­ish char­ac­ters and themes were rare, unless they were didac­tic works with a reli­gious focus. This series changed that invis­i­bil­i­ty, open­ing the door to more children’s books about mar­gin­al­ized communities.

Cummins’s descrip­tion of Taylor’s rela­tion­ship with Fol­lett edi­tor Esther Meeks reveals cru­cial points about why and how Taylor’s work changed Amer­i­can children’s books, despite obsta­cles based in prej­u­dice. While the non-Jew­ish Meeks enthu­si­as­ti­cal­ly pro­mot­ed Taylor’s work, she also pres­sured the author to edit con­tent that seemed either implau­si­ble or not mar­ketable. As Cum­mins writes with some under­state­ment, the edi­tor “…paid close atten­tion to every word and punc­tu­a­tion mark in the text, and dis­played ambiva­lence toward its Jew­ish con­tent.” If the cel­e­bra­tion of a Jew­ish hol­i­day such as Sukkot seemed inap­pro­pri­ate­ly live­ly to Meeks, lack­ing the deco­rum that she asso­ci­at­ed with Chris­t­ian reli­gious obser­vance, she argued with Tay­lor about its inclu­sion. Meeks deter­mined that a chap­ter about the Fourth of July was need­ed in order to uni­ver­sal­ize Taylor’s sto­ries, which she strong­ly believed should not be lim­it­ed to a Jew­ish per­spec­tive. Cum­mins even brings the shad­ow of the Rosen­bergs, who would be tried for espi­onage in 1951, to the All-of-a-Kind saga. Meeks’s reminder that any per­ceived lack of loy­al­ty to Amer­i­can cus­toms might be detri­men­tal to a book about Jews at that time appears to Cum­mins as a chill­ing warn­ing about the stereo­type of Jews as sub­ver­sive and unpatriotic.

Gen­er­a­tions of read­ers have immersed them­selves in Taylor’s books and expe­ri­enced them with a kind of intense devo­tion. Now, thanks to the late June Cummins’s thor­ough research, dis­cern­ing intel­lect, and ded­i­ca­tion to her sub­ject, they have a biog­ra­phy that illu­mi­nates Taylor’s con­tri­bu­tion to Jew­ish-Amer­i­can children’s books.

Emi­ly Schnei­der writes about lit­er­a­ture, fem­i­nism, and cul­ture for TabletThe For­wardThe Horn Book, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions, and writes about chil­dren’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Lan­guages and Literatures.

Discussion Questions