Around the Writers’ Table: ‘One of a Kind’

New picture book on the life of Sydney Taylor, the woman who introduced American children to a Jewish family.


She changed her name from Sarah to Sydney when she was 14 years old because she thought people would pay more attention to her writing if she had a modern name, a boy’s name, but it wasn’t until she was in her 40s that Sydney Taylor’s first novel for children was published. “All-of-a-Kind Family” was the groundbreaking story of five Jewish sisters growing up in an immigrant neighborhood on the Lower East Side of Manhattan. Published in 1951, it is considered the first book for children about a Jewish family. It became the first in a five-book series, and launched Taylor’s literary career.

Seasonal Oak Bluffs resident Richard Michelson’s newest picture book, “One of a Kind: The Life of Sydney Taylor,” illustrated by Sarah Green (“Calkins Creek”), introduces a new generation of readers to Taylor and her work.

Michelson begins Taylor’s story (although at that time her name was Sarah Brenner) on her seventh birthday, and introduces us to the five Brenner sisters. “All morning Sarah’s sisters giggle and whisper. It isn’t easy keeping secrets when you have to share the same small room.”

Michelson walks us through the immigrant neighborhood of Taylor’s childhood, with pushcart peddlers yelling in Yiddish, and writes about her family’s Jewish traditions and how they were encouraged to assimilate.

“Sarah loves lighting the Sabbath candles every Friday evening. But Mama and Papa encourage the girls to learn American customs, ‘so you shouldn’t feel like a foreigner in your own country.’”

When Taylor (still Brenner) grows up and is working as a secretary, she speaks out against anti-Semitism and sexism. She marries Ralph Taylor and has a daughter, Jo. Then one evening, while reading a bedtime story, Jo asks, “Why is it that whenever we read a book about children, it is always a Christian child? Why isn’t there a book about Jewish children?”

After I read Michelson’s book, I downloaded “All-of-a-Kind Family” and reread it for the first time in decades. While I have certainly aged, the book did not, and I recommend that not just young readers, but also those of us who are keeping the wrinkle-reduction cream market in business, read Michelson’s new book, then either discover or rediscover Taylor’s own work.

I had a few questions for Michelson, and his answers are below. (Full disclosure: Richard Michelson is a friend and colleague — but these connections are hard to avoid when you have writers writing about writers on a small Island.)

Why did you want to write about Sydney Taylor?
Sydney Taylor’s “All-of-a-Kind Family” was the first Jewish children’s book to become popular with non-Jewish readers, and her series would both show and help shape American Jewish identity in the 20th century. She knew that every child deserved to see themselves represented in books, and she kicked open the door to today’s multicultural movement.

Why is it important for children to know who Sydney Taylor was?
Because Jewish kids should know the history of Jews in America, and what life was like for their grandparents and great-grandparents who immigrated to this country. And contemporary non-Jewish immigrant children are dealing with some of the same prejudices and fears that Syd’s characters lived through. More importantly, her books are just fun to read, and they stand the test of time.

How did you come to write this story?
I was not much of a reader as a child, and I didn’t even know the name Sydney Taylor until I won my first Sydney Taylor Award in 2009 (for “As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom”). In Syd’s honor, the Association of Jewish Libraries oversees the Sydney Taylor Book Award, which is presented annually to “the most outstanding books for children and teens that authentically portray the Jewish experience.” I always felt it my duty, whenever I’ve been fortunate enough to win any literary award, to learn under whose aegis I was accepting the prize, so I read “All-of-a-Kind Family,” and immediately fell in love with the stories. After I was lucky enough to win a second Sydney Taylor Gold Medal in 2018 (for “The Language of Angels”), I met Syd’s daughter, Jo Taylor Marshall, who is a fun, accomplished and entertaining person in her own right. I was curious about her mom, and Jo started telling me the stories, which would eventually become “One of a Kind,” which I started writing the very next day.

“One of a Kind” is available on-Island at Bunch of Grapes and Edgartown Books. Please support our local indie bookstores