Sydney Taylor, Author of All-of-a-Kind Family

Sydney Taylor

Sydney Taylor (born Sarah Brenner; October 30, 1904 – February 12, 1978) was an American author best known for All-of-a-Kind Family. This series of autobiographical children’s novels portrays the life of an Eastern European Jewish immigrant family in New York City in the early twentieth century.

Though she wrote several other children’s novels, the five books in the All-of-a-Kind Family series proved to be her lasting legacy, earning a devoted audience for their warm and loving depiction of Jewish life in early twentieth-century America.

Photo above right, Sydney Taylor (Sarah Brenner) in the 1920s, from the private collection of her daughter, Jo Taylor Marshall.

 

Becoming an author unexpectedly

For New York City housewife Sydney Taylor, November 21, 1950, began as just another ordinary day. But after that day’s mail came, there was a significant change of status — the daughter of Eastern European Jewish immigrants had at once become a professional writer.

The letter that Sydney opened that day, addressed from Follett Publishers, informed her that she was the first-place winner in their Children’s Manuscript Competition. The prize included a gold medal, publication of the manuscript, and a cash award of $3,000 (equal to more than $30,000 today). The kicker was that she had no idea that she’d been entered into the contest.

After a brief conversation with her husband, Ralph Taylor, the mystery of the Follett prize was solved: the previous summer, Ralph had his secretary type his wife’s manuscript, which he’d found stashed in the closet. Ralph was convinced the stories were too good and too significant for them to go unnoticed by children’s book publishers.

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Sarah Brenner and family (Sydney Taylor)

The real-life “all-of-a-kind” family —
Sarah (Sydney) is second from left, holding an apple
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From bedtime stories to historical fiction for children

The manuscript Sydney had written was the first in the five-book children’s historical fiction series, All of-A-Kind Family. The series was nearly autobiographical for Sydney. The tales reflected the real-life experiences of her own family, the Brenners, Jewish emigrants from Germany and Poland.

In 1901, Morris and Cecilia Brenner joined the wave of tens of thousands of European Jews coming to America, flush with big dreams and bigger ambition.

Sydney Taylor liked to tell these stories of her family in New York City’s Lower East Side to her daughter, Joanne, when she was young. These family tales were of her mother’s life growing up with four sisters (later there would be one brother, Charlie) in the Lower East Side in the early twentieth century. Joanne so enjoyed the tales that Sydney began writing them down.

Sydney’s bedtime stories for Joanne reflected something larger, more historical than simply the Brenner family chronicles. When Sydney began recording her family’s Jewish immigrant life in the early twentieth century, she was preserving fragments of the experience of millions of Eastern European Jewish immigrants.

In 1880, seventy-five percent of the world’s Jewish population lived in Europe and a mere three percent of world Jewry lived in the U.S. By 1920, the demographics had climbed to twenty-three percent of the Jewish population living in the U.S. During those forty years, over two million European Jews had landed in New York harbor.

 

The Brenner’s voyage to America

When Morris and Cecilia Brenner voyaged to America in 1901, their traveling party included fifteen-month-old daughter Ella, Cecilia’s brother (also named Morris), and an uncle, Hyam-Yonkel.

To save every penny, they traveled in steerage for their twelve-day voyage across the Atlantic Ocean. Unfortunately, from the first day of their ocean journey, Cecilia became severely ill with seasickness that had Morris attempting to care for his ill wife. Soon, Cecilia needed her husband’s care every hour of the day and night.

That left the responsibility of caring for Ella to Uncle Hyam-Yonkel and her brother Morris. One day, much to the surprise and shock of Uncle Hyam-Yonkel and brother Morris, Ella had slipped under the ship’s railings and had almost toppled overboard. Uncle Hyam-Yonkel went into action — he grabbed Ella’s long gown and carried her to safety.

Another favorite Brenner family tale of their voyage to America was Morris’s reaction when he first saw the Statue of Liberty. As their ship was coming into New York labor, Morris became so emotionally moved by the sight of Lady Liberty and the poem at the statue’s base by Emma Lazarus (“Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free”) that when the family finally disembarked the ship and cleared customs, Morris insisted that the family’s first stop would be locating the office where he could become a U.S. citizen. Of course, things didn’t work that way.

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Sydney Taylor, author of All-of-a-Kind Family

Sydney in the 1950s
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Settling in the Lower East Side

Upon first arriving, the family stayed with Morris’s maternal aunt and uncle in their Lower East Side apartment until they found their own first home, an apartment nearby.

The Lower East Side was one of the world’s most densely populated areas, with a thousand residents per square acre. Yiddish was the dominant language heard in the streets. Immigrant Jews were packed into tenement housing; the apartments were impossible to clean and had inadequate ventilation, heat, and lighting.

The tenements had no hot water and often, only a communal toilet in hallways. It wasn’t unusual for twelve people to live in two rooms.

The Brenners’ first New York home of their own was on East 5th Street, a three-room apartment with the front room given out to Cecelia’s brother, and Uncle Hyam-Yonkel. After their second daughter, Henrietta, was born, the Brenners moved across the street to 708 East 5th Street. It was here that Sarah, the future Sydney Taylor, was born on October 30, 1904.

There would be two more daughters, Charlotte and Gertrude, spaced about two years apart, and after a longer stretch, brother Charlie was born. The real-life All-of-a-Kind-Family, plus one, was complete.

As conveyed in the five lightly fictionalized All-of-a-Kind Family books, Sarah and her four sisters excelled in the local public school, went to the Hamilton Fish Park Branch and Seward Branch Public Libraries on Friday afternoons, observed all the Jewish holidays and the Sabbath, helped their Mama with the housework, and every daughter, except for Henrietta, obeyed their parents.

What was also real, but not depicted in the series, was the unfortunate bouts of severe depression that plagued Cecilia. Otherwise, life for the five Brenner sisters unfolded around their public schools, their synagogue, and their friends and family.

 

Sarah becomes Sydney

When she was sixteen years old and a student at Morris High School, Sarah Brenner changed her first name to Sydney. It was the name she chose for her planned career in the theatre arts.

Sydney was forced to leave high school two years early to supplement the Brenner family income. She worked in the clerical field and continued to educate herself at night school.

In 1925, Sydney married Ralph Taylor, a pharmacist and businessman. Sydney acted in The Lenox Hill Players, a distinguished New York theatre company, from 1927 to 1929. Then, she became a professional dancer with the Martha Graham Dance Company. After their daughter was born in 1935, Sydney became a full-time housewife and mother to Joanne.

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All-of-a-kind family by sydney taylor

All-of-a-Kind Family on Bookshop.org* and Amazon*
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All-of-a-Kind Family

All-of-a-Kind-Family , published in 1951, became the first of a series of children’s novels about a tight-knit Jewish family at the turn of the 20th century. Ella, Henny, Sarah, Charlotte, and Gertie are five young sisters (named for Sydney and her real-life sisters0 who live with their parents in the Lower East Side of New York City.

This story and its sequels depict the joys and challenges of immigrant life, with an overriding message of family love and loyalty. Notable for its emphasis on Jewish holidays and traditions, the book and its sequels presented them as joyous occasions, without resorting to stereotypes.

Readers wanted more after the success of the first All-of-a-Kind Family. Four more volumes about the five sisters (and now, one brother) followed: More All-Of-A-Kind Family (1954) All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown (1958), All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown (1972), and Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family (1978). In the long gap between the first three installments and the last two, Sydney published several other, unrelated children’s novels. Her last book, published posthumously, was Danny Loves a Holiday (1980), also unrelated to the series.

In the last half of the twentieth century, the All-of-a-Kind Family books were the best-known children’s works depicting Jewish life in America. Read more about the series here.

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From Sarah to Sydney by June Cummins and Alexandra Dunietz

From Sarah to Sydney (Yale University Press, 2021)
on Bookshop.org* and Amazon*
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Sydney Taylor’s legacy

When her status changed in 1950 to that of a professional writer, Sydney became active in touring public libraries throughout New York City and New York state to encourage literacy for young readers.

She also received voluminous fan mail and answered every letter. Towards the end of her life, her favorite letters were from grandmothers who had introduced the books to their daughters — and now joyfully watched as these daughters introduced the books to their children.

In an interview, Taylor shared why these books were so personally important for her to write. “I remember when I was a little girl and read books from the library that were always about Gentile children and never about Jewish ones. So when I grew up and had a daughter of my own, I determined I’d write a book for her about Jewish children.”

In 1978, Sydney Taylor died after a long bout with breast cancer. The next year, after Ralph brought the idea to the Association of Jewish Libraries, The Sydney Taylor Award for Excellence in Children’s Literature was established. The award recognizes a children’s book that displays literary merit and authentically conveys the Jewish experience.

The four sequels to All-of-a-Kind Family were republished in 2014 by Lizzie Skurnick Books. June Cummins, who would go on to write the first full-scale biography of the author (From Sarah to Sydney, 2021) contributed new forewords for these editions.

Contributed by Nancy Snyder, who writes about women writers and labor women. After working for the City and County of San Francisco for thirty years, she is now learning everything about Henry David Thoreau in Los Angeles.

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All of a Kind Family Downtown by Sydney Taylor

Sydney Taylor’s books on Amazon*


More about Sydney Taylor

Novels for children

  • All-of-a-Kind Family (1951), illustrated by Helen John
  • More All-Of-A-Kind Family (1954), illustrated by Mary Stevens
  • All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown (1958), illustrated by Mary Stevens
  • Mr. Barney’s Beard (1961), illustrated by Charles Geer
  • Now That You Are 8 (1963), illustrated by Ingrid Fetz
  • The Dog Who Came to Dinner (1966), illustrated by John E. Johnson
  • A Papa Like Everyone Else (1966), illustrated by George Porter
  • All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown (1972), illustrated by Beth and Joe Krush
  • Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family (1978), illustrated by Gail Owens
  • Danny Loves a Holiday (1980), illustrated by Gail Owens

Biography

  • From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman Behind All-of-a-Kind Family
    by June Cummins with Alexandra Dunietz (2021)

More information and sources

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