Friday, January 11, 2013

Children's Literature: Sydney Taylor

Sydney Taylor (1904 - 1978) was born Sarah Brenner.  Her parents were Jewish immigrants, newly arrived in 1900, and they lived on the Lower East Side of New York City as so many Jewish people did.  She studied drama and became an actress and dancer.  She married Ralph Taylor, a businessman, and continued her career for 10 years until the birth of her daughter. 

It was her little girl, who was lonely all by herself in bed, who sparked Taylor's storytelling.  She told her daughter about a family of little girls who were never lonely, because there were five of them sharing a bedroom.  As she remembered stories from her childhood, Taylor decided to write them down, but once that was done she put the manuscript away and forgot about it.  Years later, her husband surreptitiously sent the manuscript out, and it was published as All-of-a-Kind Family in 1951. 

These stories about five sisters and their life in New York became so popular that children asked for more and more.  Eventually five books were published: All-of-a-Kind Family, More All-of-a-Kind Family, All-of-a-Kind Family Uptown, All-of-a-Kind Family Downtown, and Ella of All-of-a-Kind Family.

The wonderful thing about the series is how vividly the stories let you see into the world of Jewish immigrants of a century ago.  We meet rag-packers, factory workers, housewives, and children, and see into their everyday lives.  Housekeeping, work, play, troubles and fun are all right there, and will draw you in completely.

I always liked the scenes in the public library!

 I always think of these books as similar to the Little House books, in that they offer a realistic narrative of ordinary family life at a particular time in American history.  Each is attractive to children--your daughter will want to play the dusting game and eat pickles from a barrel after reading about Sarah and Henny doing it, just like she wants to play house with pumpkins and stumps--and at the same time manages to include hardship and difficult times as well.  Although World War I does not play much of a part in these stories, the flu epidemic does, and I seem to remember a fire in a garment factory, as well as more everyday troubles.

I cannot think of a better children's story to read about life on the Lower East Side at that time.  Recently, American Girl started to publish a series about Rebecca, a Jewish girl living in the same time and place.  They are nice stories, but I've always suspected that Rebecca's obsession with show business owes something to Ella's ambitions, and these are really better-written and of course have much more depth and content.    

All-of-a-Kind Family was, I think, still quite well-known when I was growing up, but you rarely see the books now and not many people seems to be as familiar with them.  They are American classics that should be widely read!  I wonder if they've fallen out of favor because they really are old-fashioned in their attitudes in many ways, but to me that just seems realistic and reflective of what life was like.  (I'm not always happy to see historical fiction featuring thoroughly modern characters set down in front of a historical backdrop.  But I suppose that's a rant for another day.)

After Taylor's death, the Sydney Taylor Award was established and is awarded annually by the Association of Jewish Libraries for books that portray the Jewish experience.  There are three categories for younger, older, and teen readers.

1 comment:

amanda @ simplerpastimes said...

I can honestly say I'd not heard of Sydney Taylor prior to this post! Her books sound really interesting, though. Thank you for bringing a new author to my attention!