Arnon Z. Shorr
Reflections on an Amazon Category: "Children's Prejudice and Racism Books"
I don't know who chooses what category to put a book in when it's listed on Amazon, but my upcoming graphic novel, "José and the Pirate Captain Toledano" happens to be included in the category "Children's Prejudice and Racism Books".
As pre-orders for my book are increasing, it's rising in the Amazon rankings. Yesterday, the paperback got close to cracking the top-100 in the "Children's Prejudice and Racism Books" category. So I got curious. What other books are in this category? Who am I sharing this space with?
February is Black History Month, and the echoes of the Black Lives Matter protests continue to resonate loudly, so it's not surprising that the vast majority of books in the top-100 of this category explore matters of American Black/White racism. Some explore historical events or tell the stories of famous people. Others are works of pure fiction that try to frame racism in a way that kids can grasp and grapple with productively.
But I was curious to see how many of these books explore anti-Semitism directly. How are we represented in this topic of "prejudice and racism" at the top of Amazon's kidlit charts?
Here are the books I found, and their rankings (as of 2/14/22 at 8:45am)
#30 "What was the Holocaust?" by Gail Herman - part of a popular kids' history series.
#36 "Linked" by Gordon Korman - A fictional tale about a bunch of kids in a small school that reels from the discovery of swastika graffiti.
#75 "Nicky & Vera: A Quiet Hero of the Holocaust and the Children He Rescued" by Peter Sís - about Nicholas Winton
#100 "Don't Tell the Nazis" by Marsha Forchuk Skrypuch - about a non-Jewish Ukrainian kid who's faced with the challenge of protecting her Jewish friends from the Nazis.
Jews don't make up a huge part of the American population, so I wasn't expecting to find too many Jewish-themed books. Also, this category is explicitly about "prejudice and racism", so books that depict Jews who aren't struggling with some sort of oppression wouldn't show up here.
But here's where I'm surprised and somewhat disappointed.
None of these books has a Jewish protagonist.
Let that sink in.
Of the 100 most popular books that address prejudice and racism in a kid-appropriate way, the only books that explicitly explore prejudice against Jews are one history of the Holocaust, and three books about people who aren't Jewish. And those three books are also directly or indirectly Holocaust-related (two Holocaust stories, and one contemporary tale about a swastika - which is an image that became associated with anti-Semitism only in conjunction with the Holocaust).
Don't get me wrong: I'm glad there's a kids' history book about the Holocaust, and that it's popular. It's an important piece of history. I'm also glad there are stories about "righteous gentiles". Kids need heroes to model, and (like we've heard from various minority groups before) kids need (some) heroes that look or sound like them.
But so much of what this literature is meant to do is introduce us to those people who aren't like us, so we can see their humanity and celebrate it! We want our kids to read stories about kids with darker (or lighter, or just different) skin, or kids with differently-shaped eyes, or kids who speak other languages or who have different religious rituals or cultural celebrations. We want them to see that common humanity, right? We want to show that difference is the one thing we have in common! So where are the stories that introduce Jews-as-whole-characters to these readers? Why aren't there any of those in the top-100?
Also, this persistently myopic, two-dimensional portrayal of anti-Semitism and its discontents leaves so much out of the conversation.
First, it portrays anti-Semitism in purely Nazi terms - terms of extermination. There are many other types of anti-Semitism that the Holocaust-centric narrative doesn't really explore. What about country clubs that didn't admit Jews? That's very different than extermination camps. What about people who "only hire Jewish accountants"? It's a weird sort of anti-Semitism, in that it looks like some sort of praise, but it's still genuinely hurtful in that it's reductive - it reduces us to our "ism" and (by extension) makes unflattering (and often unspoken) assumptions about us - about what we can't do. And what about bigger extermination-type events? The Pogroms? The Inquisition? The Roman invasion of Judaea? There's a vast and complex universe of anti-Semitisms, of which the Holocaust is just one planet.
Second, this literature misses a whole range of other "heroes". My own family was harbored from anti-Semitic mobs by an Arab family in Tripoli, Libya. Where are those stories? If we accept the notion that kids need (some) heroes that look or sound like them, where are the Black or Brown heroes who fight anti-Semitism? They exist! Why aren't their stories being told? Why is anti-anti-Semitism only a White heroism in these books? [I should acknowledge here that I haven't read any of these books. I'm just going off of their descriptions. "Linked" might actually feature some of this multi-faceted, multi-colored anti-racism/anti-anti-Semitism heroes, but until I read it, I can't know for sure...]
Third, think about how this literature limits the view of who Jews are and what Judaism is. Granted, this list wouldn't include stories about Jewish characters that don't feature oppression in some form, but even within the world of Jewish "victimness", where are the Jews of color? Where are the Jews from North Africa? from Iran? From Yemen? Where are the Jews from Mexico or Argentina or Cuba? This relates to my point above - if we're trying to educate kids to recognize and overcome prejudice and racism, don't we need to show them that difference is what we have in common? We should be leaning into the full spectrum of differences, not omitting them.
In looking at this list and thinking about how Judaism is represented in it, I'm realizing just how much it means that my own book is so close to entering the top-100. A book about the Inquisition, not the Holocaust. A book about a Jew, not about his non-Jewish savior. A book about the crew of a unique pirate ship, where the pirates themselves are united in their differences. Some are Jews, some are Moors, some are Christian... Some worship one God, some worship many, some worship none at all. It's the dignity of difference that they fight for. And for Judaism's place in that utopian vision.
The irony, of course, is that if my book enters the top-100 today, the book it knocks off that list is "Don't Tell the Nazis". But in light of this analysis, I'm very okay with that. If you'd like to help launch "José and the Pirate Captain Toledano" into the top-100 of Amazon's "Children's Prejudice and Racism Books" category (or if it's already there, if you'd like to help keep it there) you can pre-order it here: https://amzn.to/3oNyBnc
And since this is a numbers game, the more people you tell about it, the more impact the book will have. So if you really want to change the conversation, share this article, share the Amazon link, and get people talking about Jews, Judaism and anti-Semitism beyond just the Holocaust.
The book is available for pre-orders on Amazon and several other online retailers until it is released on May 1, 2022. At that point, you can buy it everywhere books are sold.