The Letters of Sydney Taylor

Alexandra Dunietz

Would Sydney Taylor, author of the All-of-a-Kind books, have had a Facebook page? I usually avoid counterfactual history, but while helping June Cummins with research on Taylor, I occasionally wondered what she would have made of the internet.

What makes me think she would have engaged in some form of social media was her devotion to her fans. In a characteristic answer, she wrote, “I laughed aloud with pleasure after reading your very nice note to me” (Taylor to Judy Gregg, February 15, 1955). Even though she had cordial relations with her editors for the All-of-a-Kind books, she could be downright snippy when they failed to forward fan mail that went to the publisher instead of to her home address or if they omitted to include the return addresses. In her view, delayed replies were bad etiquette and bad business practice. At one point she complained to staff at Follett Publishing: “I am disturbed by the fact that a letter written to me from some child is held up for so long a time. I received a big batch of letters this morning, some of them dated as early as December 14th. What do you suppose a child thinks when she writes a note, taking the time and trouble to do so and straining in the effort—only to receive no reply for so long a period? Highly disappointed in the writer I am sure . . . To keep a child waiting almost 2 months for an answer is hardly establishing a good relationship between author and reader” (Taylor to Follett, January 29, 1969). 

We are not talking about a few letters here. Taylor received hundreds of letters from readers, adults as well as children. She typed a personal reply to each and every one of them, stored them in files arranged alphabetically and chronologically, often including a copy of her reply as well. Her early replies to readers such as “dear little Miriam” could be long and detailed about everything from Sabbath angels at Cejwin Camp to anecdotes about why she changed her name. Sometimes her replies included a publicity pamphlet with her photograph and an illustration from one of her books. Follett Publishing would also send book jackets and other publicity materials because, whatever their shortcomings in Taylor’s opinion, they realized the value of her relationship with fans for sales. One editor in the Children’s Book Department wrote to Taylor in 1963: “We are beginning to think that this is Sydney Taylor month because you have had so much fan mail. It must be very rewarding to have it continue at such a rate over so many years” (Bertha Jenkinson to Taylor, December 9, 1963).

June and I made a map to chart where these letters came from. As we expected, most came from school children in large East Coast cities. Yet they also came from Wisconsin and Texas, Quebec and British Columbia. Most were written by middle schoolers, who were the target audience for her books, and some were clearly class projects, with lists of questions about where she lived, whether she had children or pets, where she got her ideas for books, and so on—similar to those Beverly Cleary poked fun at in her 1984 Newbery Award-winning Dear Mr. Henshaw. Readers also wanted to know if Taylor was a man or a woman, and they were curious about which of the sisters she was in the All-of-a-Kind family. Many guessed that she was Henny or Ella instead of the serious Sarah she based on herself. Taylor’s heart warmed not just to children, but to parents and grandparents who expressed their gratitude for her story of lives they and their parents had lived, thus allowing them to share that past with the younger generation.

Taylor was invariably kind in her replies. One began, “Your letter full of questions gives me the feeling that I’m being interviewed by a very competent reporter” (Taylor to Susan Foit, February 24, 1958). In another she admitted, “It’s especially nice of you to take the time and trouble to write to me, and I want you to know that there is nothing an author likes better” (Taylor to Susan Gelber, April 18, 1958). Even when she wrote one reply to an entire class, Taylor was gracious: “My letter box this morning was stuffed! No wonder—19 letters! I counted them, you see. 19 in addition to others, one from a reader in Washington—the state of Washington that is—and another from a child in Medina, Ohio. As I told you, children write to me from all parts of the country. I was never very good in geography but I’m learning about our country through my readers. It’s fascinating to discover cities and towns with strange, interesting names that I never had heard about before” (Taylor to “all the children in Room 6 at Pepper Pike School,” February 24, 1975).

June anticipated that most of the fan letters would be from Jewish readers, but plenty came from non-Jews, expressing their interest in unfamiliar customs or, making no mention of religion, focusing on their favorite chapters about dusting or a lost library book. Taylor was pleased that her books had such a broad appeal. To one girl, she reflected, “It’s interesting to realize that you liked my book because you are Jewish. And yesterday I received a letter from a child who goes to a Catholic School—St. Christopher’s School in Minnesota—and she liked the book because she learned so much about Jewish people. I’m so glad my book can appeal to Gentiles as well as Jews. That’s a better way, don’t you think?” (Taylor to Suzanne Weiner, February 26, 1959).

So about social media—replying to so many fans was time-consuming work for the busy Taylor. To have a website where readers could leave messages, to be able to address many fans at once, to use Copy and Paste instead of typing up separate replies—Taylor the author and businesswoman would have jumped at the opportunity. 

Alexandra Dunietz is a historian of the medieval Middle East.

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