Book Bag: ‘One of a Kind: The life of Sydney Taylor’ By Richard Michelson; ‘Joyful Song: A Naming Story’ by Lesléa Newman

By STEVE PFARRER

Staff Writer

Published: 03-15-2024 3:33 PM

Modified: 03-18-2024 9:11 AM


One of a Kind: The Life
of Sydney Taylor
Written by Richard Michelson
Illustrated by Sarah Green
Calkins Creek

 

Valley poet and children’s author Richard Michelson has often delved into history in some of his books for young readers, such as “The Language of Angels,” the story of how Hebrew became a modern spoken language in the late 19th century, and “As Good as Anybody,” an account of how Martin Luther King, Jr. and the Polish-American rabbi and theologian Abraham Joshua Heschel became friends and allies during the civil rights era.

In “One of a Kind: The Life of Sydney Taylor,” Michelson has again reached back in time to tell the story of how a poor Jewish immigrant girl in early 20th century New York overcame various hardships to become a dancer, an advocate for women’s rights, and finally an award-winning children’s book author — one for whom a prominent book award is now named.

Sarah Brenner, born in 1904, is one of five girls and three boys of German-Jewish immigrant parents, and like many such families in New York in that era, they live hand-to-mouth in a tiny apartment. Sarah’s father makes a bare living as a junk dealer, while her mother “is always cleaning and cooking or stoking a fire in the coal stove so nobody freezes.”

“It isn’t fair that Papa works from early morning until late at night and we barely have enough to eat,” says Sarah.

She’s a buoyant kid, though, who loves to read and dance, and she likes learning about her adopted country. She also loves celebrating Jewish holidays with her family, and she stands up for her people.

In a later scene, for instance, Michelson shows how Sarah, working as a secretary in an office as a young woman, calls out her colleagues for saying Jews are dirty and lazy: They don’t realize she’s Jewish “because she is blond and speaks English without an accent.”

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Sarah also changes her name to Sydney, thinking “Sarah” is too tame for her outspoken beliefs — she becomes a committed socialist — and it’s the name she uses when she becomes a part-time dancer in her twenties, including with the prestigious Martha Graham Company.

Later, married and a parent, she becomes Sydney Taylor — the name that graces the title of her award-winning 1951 children’s book, “All-of-a-Kind Family,” one of the first children’s books specifically about Jewish children, full of details of Jewish immigrant life in the early 20th century.

In an afterword, Michelson, who grew up in New York himself, notes that he didn’t read “Family” or Taylor’s follow-up books as a child. But after receiving a Sydney Taylor Gold Medal in 2009, he started reading “All-of-a-Kind Family” and soon “was hooked … I loved the rich historical details, and I too wanted to be part of the Taylor family.”

About 10 years later, he writes, he met Taylor’s daughter, Jo Taylor Marshall, who “shared many of her own stories. I asked about her mom, and Jo’s answers brought Sydney to life. I started writing this book the next day.”

 

Joyful Song: A Naming Story
Written by Lesléa Newman
Illustrated by Susan Gal
Levine Querido

 

Holyoke author Lesléa Newman has written over 50 books for young readers, including the one that first gained her widespread notice, “Heather has Two Mommies.” (She’s also a Sydney Taylor Award winner.)

In “Joyful Song: A Naming Story,” Newman adds to her total with a story about a young boy, Zachary, who’s pretty excited that he has a new baby sister. Not only that, he, his sister, and his two moms are heading out that morning to their local synagogue for a special event.

As Zachary puts it, “It’s my baby sister’s very first Shabbat and we get to stand on the bima with the Rabbi in front of everyone and announce her name to the world.”

As the family sets off from home, Zachary pushing his sister in a baby carriage, they meet a number of their neighbors, like Miss Fukumi, who are curious about the girl’s name — and Zachary has a hard time not blurting it out, even as his two moms caution him.

“Her name is — ” says Zachary.

“Little Babka,” Mama says quickly. “We call her that because she’s the size of freshly baked babka.”

The neighbors — Miss Fukumi, Mr. Baraka, and Mrs. Santiago — are all intrigued by the new girl and gladly join the procession to the synagogue, where the Rabbi tells the congregation that it’s a special day because “the newest member of our congregation receives her name and is welcomed into our community.”

And after the Rabbi and Zachary’s moms say a blessing for the new child, Zachary, holding his sister, will finally get the chance to announce the girl’s name, with a line he’s been practicing all week, revealing a name that’s been inspired by the fact that his sister makes “our hearts sing with happiness.”

And just then his sister opens her eyes and looks at him.

After the service and a lunch at the synagogue, the family says goodbye to their neighbors and returns home, where their two dogs, Stella and Bella, run in circles, barking and wagging their tales.

“They’re singing you a joyful song,” Zachary says to his sister.

In an author’s note, Newman also offers some background on naming ceremonies for Jewish children — b’rit milah for boys, b’rit bat, b’rit chayim, or simchat bat for girls — and what goes into some of the choices of names.

Steve Pfarrer can be reached at spfarrer@gazettenet.com.