One of a Kind: The Life of Syd­ney Taylor

  • Review
By – May 28, 2024

The matri­arch of Jew­ish Amer­i­can children’s lit­er­a­ture is final­ly the sub­ject of a pic­ture book biog­ra­phy. While Syd­ney Taylor’s All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series is still pop­u­lar now, Richard Michel­son and Sarah Green’s One of a Kind will draw in new Tay­lor fans and offer infor­ma­tion about her life and career to old ones.

This book pro­vides an accu­rate account of who Tay­lor was and how she came to delight gen­er­a­tions of read­ers. A deter­mined and mul­ti­tal­ent­ed woman, Tay­lor infused every lit­er­ary clas­sic she wrote with her own life expe­ri­ences. Like the mid­dle child in All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly, Tay­lor was orig­i­nal­ly named Sarah, not Syd­ney. Born into the Jew­ish immi­grant Bren­ner fam­i­ly, she had two old­er and two younger sis­ters. Her hard­work­ing par­ents had escaped anti­semitism in Europe and found eco­nom­ic oppor­tu­ni­ties in their new coun­try. Like so many oth­ers, they orig­i­nal­ly set­tled on New York’s Low­er East Side, the smelli­est, nois­i­est, most crowd­ed neigh­bor­hood in the world.” At least that was the way it appeared to its res­i­dents, whose lives were both restrict­ed by pover­ty and strength­ened by tra­di­tion. This para­dox of fideli­ty to the past and desire for change con­tributed to Taylor’s devel­op­ment as an artist.

Taylor’s firm con­vic­tion that inequal­i­ty was unjust drove her to anger, and the lim­it­ed roles avail­able to women pro­pelled her to seek alter­na­tives. In vibrant scenes with sub­tle col­ors, the illus­tra­tor por­trays Taylor’s ambiva­lence. As her smil­ing moth­er patient­ly slices a loaf of bread, Tay­lor sits with her elbows on the table, her chin propped in her hand. The expres­sion on her face is one of frus­tra­tion. She seems to be imag­in­ing a dif­fer­ent world. In the fol­low­ing pages, she takes trips to the pub­lic library, where her lit­er­ary role mod­els — specif­i­cal­ly, Louisa May Alcott’s Lit­tle Women—show her the way forward.

Tay­lor found com­fort and secu­ri­ty in Jew­ish obser­vance, but she also looked to the out­er world for oth­er forms of self-expres­sion. Before pur­su­ing her writ­ing career, she took class­es in the­ater and dance at the Hen­ry Street Set­tle­ment. She even­tu­al­ly danced with the Martha Gra­ham Com­pa­ny and direct­ed dra­ma pro­grams at Camp Cejwin. An ele­gant por­trait of Tay­lor as a mod­ern dancer in a strik­ing red dress stands in con­trast to the pinafore-wear­ing girls from her childhood.

In 1919, Tay­lor began to keep a diary, which she signed with her new name, Syd­ney. It seemed more con­tem­po­rary than Sarah, and she felt its gen­der neu­tral­ness might pro­tect her from the prej­u­dice female authors faced.

Tay­lor met her hus­band, Ralph, at a meet­ing of the Young People’s Social­ist League, a detail that is often over­looked in more sen­ti­men­tal descrip­tions of her life. While they both began as activists, Ralph became a suc­cess­ful busi­ness­men, and Tay­lor chan­neled her sto­ry­telling skills into vivid tales for her daugh­ter, Jo, who had asked a ques­tion that still res­onates today: Why isn’t there a book about Jew­ish chil­dren?” But, intu­it­ing that edi­tors’ respons­es to that ques­tion might not be favor­able, Tay­lor kept her man­u­script in a draw­er. Then, unbe­knownst to her, Ralph sent it to a com­pe­ti­tion at Fol­let Pub­lish­ers. They accept­ed the sto­ry about Ella, Hen­ny, Sarah, Char­lotte, and Ger­tie for pub­li­ca­tion. This hap­pi­ly ever after” end­ing was the result not of one sto­ry stuffed in a draw­er, but of years of com­pro­mise, ded­i­ca­tion, and talent.

The Syd­ney Tay­lor who emerges in this book is an icon­ic fig­ure in the world of Jew­ish children’s lit­er­a­ture. Yet she has also clear­ly earned a place in the diverse canon of Amer­i­can children’s books. She under­stood that rep­re­sent­ing the par­tic­u­lar expe­ri­ences of one group does not exclude oth­ers. The final image of this biog­ra­phy — in which Taylor’s book and por­trait join those of oth­er writ­ers in a pub­lic library — reflects that truth.

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.

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