The purpose of the Sydney Taylor Book Award is to encourage the publication of outstanding books of Jewish content for children and teens, books that exemplify the highest literary standards while authentically portraying the Jewish experience. It is hoped that official recognition of such books will inspire authors, encourage publishers, inform parents and teachers, and intrigue young readers. The committee also hopes that by educating readers about the Jewish experience, they can engender pride in Jewish readers while building bridges to readers of other backgrounds.
The Association of Jewish Libraries (AJL) has been recognizing quality Jewish literature for many years. In 1968, AJL established a children's book award called the Shirley Kravitz Children's Book Award. The first winner of this award was author Esther Hautzig for her book The Endless Steppe. This award was renamed "the Sydney Taylor Book Award" in 1978 after the death of Sydney Taylor, author of the All-of-a-Kind Family series. For more information about Sydney Taylor’s life and writing, please see the All-of-a-Kind Companion, created by AJL in 2004 in celebration of the centennial anniversary of the author’s birth.
Nettie Frishman, a librarian Los Angeles Public Library and a member of the AJL book award committee, was a friend of Ralph and Sydney Taylor, and created a "shidduch" between Ralph and AJL. Ralph established the Sydney Taylor Book Award in his wife's memory. The first winner under the award's new name was Doris Orgel for The Devil in Vienna (Penguin, 1978). Ralph Taylor attended the June 1979 AJL convention for the awards ceremony. He was presented with the Sydney Taylor Body-of-Work Award as a posthumous prize for his wife's writing career, in which he had been very instrumental.
Since the re-naming of the award, all winners of AJL's children's book awards have generally been referred to as winners of the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
From 1968 to 1980, AJL selected a single award winner from among the novels and chapter books published each year for older children. In 1981, the Sydney Taylor Book Award began recognizing winners in two categories: a picture book or short informational book in the Younger Readers Category and a novel or longer nonfiction title in the Older Readers Category.
In 1985, AJL established the Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award to encourage aspiring writers of Jewish children's books. It is awarded each year to an unpublished author for the best Judaic fiction manuscript appropriate for readers ages 8-11. The Sydney Taylor Manuscript Award is administered by its own separate AJL committee and is not a part of the Sydney Taylor Book Award.
Also in 1985, the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee began designating Notable Books (originally called "The Best of the Bunch"). These are books which have not been selected as prize winners, but are deemed worthy of attention. A new list of Notable Books is publicized each year at the same time that the winners are announced. Notable Books are selected in both the Younger and Older Readers Categories. Notable Book Lists from 1999-2011 are available online. A compilation of the Notable Lists from 1985-1999 (then called Best of the Bunch) is available for purchase.
In 1988, the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee began selecting Honor Books as well as winning titles. The Honor Books bear a silver seal, while the winning titles bear a gold seal. Honor Books are now selected in all three categories: for Younger Readers, for Older Readers, and for Teen Readers.
From 1968 to 2004, the awards were named for the year in which the winners were published, not the year in which the award was presented. For example, the 2004 Sydney Taylor Book Award winner, Real Time by Pnina Moed Kass, was published in 2004, yet the prize was awarded in 2005. In 2005, the dating system was changed to coordinate with that used by other major children's book awards such as ALA's Newbery and Caldecott Awards. From that time forth, the award was named for the year in which the prize was presented, for a book published during the previous year.
Over the years, the Sydney Taylor Book Award Committee received an increasing number of young adult titles, geared for 7th - 12th grade, giving the "Older Readers" category too wide of an age range to evaluate properly. With approval from the AJL Board and Council, the Committee established the Association of Jewish Libraries Teen Book Award in January 2007 to recognize the best books of Jewish content for teen readers. In March 2007, the family of Sydney Taylor generously offered to fund the new category. The Sydney Taylor Book Awards are now presented in three categories: Younger Readers, Older Readers, and Teen Readers.