There are few more foundational books in Jewish American children’s literature than the All-of-a-Kind Family series by Sydney Taylor (1904−1978). 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 Tablet, The Forward, The Horn Book, and other publications, and writes about children’s books on her blog. She has a Ph.D. in Romance Languages and Literatures.