Interview with Richard Michelson, author of ONE OF A KIND: THE LIFE OF SYDNEY TAYLOR

Richard Michelson’s picture book biography ONE OF A KIND: THE LIFE OF SYDNEY TAYLOR (Calkins Creek, 2024) illustrated by Sarah Green, tells the life story of Sydney Taylor, author of the iconic ALL-OF-A-KIND FAMILY book series. Sydney Taylor is a beloved figure in Jewish children’s literature, and I am thrilled that her story is out in the world and accessible to young readers.

I first met author Richard Michelson when I served as the chair of the Sydney Taylor Book Award committee, and I have since been delighted to interview him about his books and awards. Now, I am happy to learn more from Richard about this thoughtful and inspiring book.

Welcome back, Richard.

Can you tell me a bit about your research process for ONE OF A KIND?

I love research. It is my favorite part of the process, but I also recognize that research can become an excuse for not delving in and doing the actual writing.

In this case I read everything Sydney had published, and I was lucky enough to read her unpublished plays, courtesy of her daughter, Jo Taylor Marshall. I found speeches Sydney had given in various library databases, and I read all the critical responses I could find. And while I wrote my story before the wonderful adult biography, From Sarah to Sydney: The Woman Behind All-of-a-Kind Family by June Cummins and Alexandra Dunietz, was published, Alexandra was kind enough to share it in manuscript so I could double check my facts.

The best part of the research process, however, was just chatting with Jo over several lunches, dinners, and phone calls.

Richard Michelson

As a recipient of several Sydney Taylor Book Awards, what did it mean to you personally to write this book about Sydney Taylor? 

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 (As Good as Anybody: Martin Luther King and Abraham Joshua Heschel’s Amazing March Toward Freedom). 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. I knew Sydney was writing stories and not penning an autobiography, but I still wanted to be part of the Taylor family. After I was lucky enough to win a second Sydney Taylor Gold Medal in 2018 (The Language of Angels), I met Syd’s daughter, Jo, 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.

I was surprised a picture book biography had never been written about Syd, and it was important for me to get it just right, so that I would make both Jo, and myself, proud. Not to mention all the good folks at the Association of Jewish Libraries, who have been so supportive of my work over the years. I didn’t want to let anyone down!

Were there any anecdotes or interesting facts about Sydney Taylor’s life that didn’t make it into the final draft?

I learned so many surprising facts, much of which did make it into the book, though in an abbreviated form. Besides being an author, Syd was a member of the Young People’s Socialist League, joined the first iteration of the Martha Graham Dance Company, and acted off-Broadway with the Lenox Hill Players (Lee Strasberg produced an early F. Scott Fitzgerald comedy which Syd performed in). In the interest of concision, I did have to edit out many of the details of her dance/theater career. And of course, there is some “adult content” left out of the story, but maybe if you all come to my talk at the AJL conference in San Diego, I can add in some of those teasers!

What were your thoughts when you saw Sarah Green’s illustrations?

Sarah’s work is wonderful! She was able to illustrate the biographical details but also to capture Sydney’s spirit and imagination. The illustrations are colorful and inspired. She brought my words alive. Her images of Sydney dancing, and day-dreaming about being an author are priceless.

What do you hope readers take away from ONE OF A KIND?

Sydney Taylor’s All of a Kind Family both showed and helped shape American Jewish identity in the twentieth century. It was the first Jewish children’s book to become popular with non-Jewish readers and, as importantly, Syd helped break down barriers so that all ethnic groups could eventually have a voice in children’s literature.

Sydney lived an amazingly full life; but she also faced disappointment. Her stories were turned down many times before they found a publisher. But she wrote what she needed to, even when her words were out of fashion.

She knew that every child deserved to see themselves represented in books, and she kicked open the door to today’s multicultural movement. I think it especially important in these difficult times to highlight stories of Jews who, though roughly 2.4 percent of the U.S. adult population (0.2 percent of the world), are often left out of the conversation when books by minorities are highlighted in libraries and bookstores.   

Thank you, Richard!

Richard Michelson is the author of The Language of Angels: The Reinvention of Hebrew, winner of the Sydney Taylor Book Award and the National Jewish Book Award, and Fascinating: The Life of Leonard Nimoy, which received the Massachusetts Book Award Honor and the Sydney Taylor Award Silver Medal, and was an NCSS Notable Book. His children’s books have been listed among the Best Books of the Year by The New York Times, PW, and The New Yorker. He owns R. Michelson Galleries, the host of Northampton Poetry Radio, and is the current poet laureate of Northampton, MA.

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