In 2018, I was at the annu­al con­fer­ence of the Asso­ci­a­tion of Jew­ish Libraries. I had received my sec­ond Syd­ney Tay­lor Gold Medal (The Lan­guage of Angels: A Sto­ry About the Rein­ven­tion of Hebrew). My dear friend, Lesléa New­man, passed me in the hotel lob­by. I’m on my way to have lunch with Jo and Mase,” she said. Want to join us?”

And that is how my book, One of a Kind: The Life of Syd­ney Tay­lor, was born.

Let me back up a bit. We go through life dri­ving down streets, and vis­it­ing parks, the­aters, and muse­ums, all named for some­one whose mem­o­ry some­body want­ed to keep alive. Rarely do we research, or even think about the per­son being hon­ored. I spent years liv­ing on Jerome Street off of Pitkin Avenue in East New York, Brook­lyn. Lat­er I moved to John­ston Avenue, Wan­tagh, and Mor­ris Street, Albany. Until googling these names just now, I had no idea who Pitkin, Jerome, John­ston, or Mor­ris were. I’d nev­er even wondered. 

But when I’ve been for­tu­nate enough to win a lit­er­ary award, I’ve always felt it my duty to learn under whose aegis I’m accept­ing the prize. Of course, I’d heard of Syd­ney Tay­lor and her All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly series before I won my first gold medal in 2009 (As Good as Any­body: Mar­tin Luther King Jr. and Abra­ham Joshua Heschel’s Amaz­ing March Toward Free­dom), but I’d nev­er read any of the sto­ries. That was no sur­prise — I didn’t read many books at all until I entered twelfth grade. But I sat myself down before the cer­e­mo­ny and devoured the first book. By chap­ter two, when Mama hides but­tons to entice her girls to do a bet­ter job dust­ing, I was hooked. As a writer myself, I knew Tay­lor was com­pos­ing sto­ries, not pen­ning an auto­bi­og­ra­phy; but I loved the rich his­tor­i­cal details, and I, too, want­ed to be a part of the Tay­lor family.

I grew up in a neigh­bor­hood that was rapid­ly chang­ing from Jew­ish to non-Jew­ish African Amer­i­can. My par­ents were total­ly sec­u­lar, and we cel­e­brat­ed no Jew­ish hol­i­days. On week­ends, I worked in my father’s hard­ware store. I didn’t mind deliv­er­ing paint, but I hat­ed sweep­ing — that is, until my father dropped some pen­nies in the dusty cor­ners and under the coun­ters. Very occa­sion­al­ly I would find a nick­el or a dime. I could keep what I found, and I became an enthu­si­as­tic sweeper.

I relat­ed this sto­ry to Jo Tay­lor Mar­shall, Syd­ney Taylor’s daugh­ter, at lunch that day. She laughed her loud, friend­ly laugh. I was to learn that Jo was also one of a kind. She attend­ed nurs­ery school at the orig­i­nal Bank Street Col­lege of Edu­ca­tion, known for its child-cen­tered phi­los­o­phy, and con­tin­ued her school­ing at Green­wich Village’s Lit­tle Red School House, which pro­mot­ed pro­gres­sive pol­i­tics and an exper­i­men­tal edu­ca­tion­al phi­los­o­phy. That alone told me much about both Jo and her moth­er. Jo would go on to grad­u­ate from a per­form­ing arts high school and form her own dance com­pa­ny (she per­formed on Dumont TV’s Stage a Num­ber pro­gram and won the spon­sor prize of twen­ty-sev­en cans of floor wax — cue anoth­er hearty laugh). She lat­er earned degrees from Sarah Lawrence Col­lege and the Colum­bia School of Social Work, where she became a fac­ul­ty mem­ber. Now retired, Jo, her part­ner Mase, and their artis­tic cat Jiminy divide their time between Flori­da and New Jersey.

I knew that the orig­i­nal All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly man­u­script had been aban­doned in a dress­er draw­er, too — until Taylor’s hus­band res­cued it, hav­ing heard about a pub­lish­ing con­test, and sub­mit­ted it with­out her knowledge. 

I didn’t yet know that All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly was the first Jew­ish children’s book to become pop­u­lar with non-Jew­ish read­ers, or that Tay­lor helped break down bar­ri­ers so that all eth­nic groups could even­tu­al­ly have a voice in children’s literature. 

I asked Jo about her mom, and Jo’s answers brought Tay­lor to life. She was a mem­ber of the Young People’s Social­ist League; she joined the first iter­a­tion of the Martha Gra­ham Dance Com­pa­ny; and she act­ed off Broad­way with the Lenox Hill Play­ers (Lee Stras­berg pro­duced an ear­ly F. Scott Fitzger­ald com­e­dy in which Syd per­formed). I was already tak­ing notes in my mind and was eager to con­tin­ue the conversation. 

Come vis­it us in New Jer­sey,” Jo offered. Stay as long as you’d like. We’ll have your bed­room ready.” I’d known Jo all of forty-five min­utes, and she felt like one of my life­long friends. Still, I did not want to impose, so months lat­er, on my way to a fam­i­ly wed­ding in Penn­syl­va­nia, my wife and I decid­ed to stop by for lunch. Jo showed us the bed­room where you will stay when you come back for a longer vis­it.” Then she men­tioned her mother’s pho­to albums in the attic, and a stack of unpub­lished plays aban­doned in a dress­er draw­er.” Read­er, I was not leav­ing with­out them!

By this time, I knew that the orig­i­nal All-of-a-Kind Fam­i­ly man­u­script had been aban­doned in a dress­er draw­er, too — until Taylor’s hus­band res­cued it, hav­ing heard about a pub­lish­ing con­test, and sub­mit­ted it with­out her knowl­edge. I also knew that Syd served as the dance and dra­ma direc­tor at Camp Cejwin, a non­prof­it Jew­ish children’s camp, for almost forty years. She wrote many plays and songs for the chil­dren, often with the help of her sisters. 

Just bring every­thing back when you are done with them,” Jo told me. Oh, joy! 

We took a quick cell-phone self­ie and hugged good­bye. I couldn’t wait to immerse myself in Taylor’s life. I didn’t even mind that those old-fash­ioned black pho­to cor­ners end­ed up all over the floor. 

I was pleased to send Jo the first copy of the final book. Though in my excite­ment, I put the sec­ond copy — signed to Harold Grin­spoon, the founder of PJ Library —into Jo’s enve­lope. I love every word and every illus­tra­tion,” she gushed, when she called me with her con­grat­u­la­tions, but who the hell is Harold?” Whoops. Her only objec­tion was the author-por­trait self­ie of Jo and me that was reprint­ed in the back of the book. I promised her that, for the sec­ond-edi­tion reprint, we’d take a pro­fes­sion­al pho­to, mak­ing sure we both had time to smile at the cam­era and comb our hair.

Richard Michelson’s many books for chil­dren and adults have received many awards and acco­lades, includ­ing a Nation­al Jew­ish Book Award and the Syd­ney Tay­lor Book Award. Michel­son hosts Northamp­ton Poet­ry Radio and served as Poet Lau­re­ate of Northamp­ton, MA. In addi­tion to being an author Michel­son is a speak­er and rep­re­sent­ed the US at the Bratisla­va Bien­ni­al in Slovakia.