Cracking down on books is never a good look. Everything from the Holy Bible to Harry Potter has been flagged, at one time or another, as objectionable. Books have been pulled from shelves, as happened in Norwood in 2005 to Rudolofo Anaya’s “Bless Me, Ultima,” or removed from curriculum in schools.
That happened recently in McMinn County, Tennessee, where the school board voted 10-0 to nix the graphic novel, “Maus,” by Art Spiegelman. The vote yanked Maus (a two volume publication) from the eighth-grade language arts curriculum, and some have since argued it effectively bans the book from those schools.
If you’re not familiar with Maus, here’s a quick rundown: Art Spiegelman is the son of Polish Holocaust survivors Vladek Spiegelman and Anja Zylberberg Spiegelman. He created Maus, published first in 1992, to tell their story of that horrifying time, as well as how it reverberated through their entire lives, with consequences as devastating as his mother’s suicide. He depicts his parents and other Jews as mice (“maus” means mouse in German) and Nazis as cats.
The rendering is pretty unsparing, including the depiction of Spiegelman finding his mother dead in the bathtub (it doesn’t show everything), and as one McMinn County Board of Education member said, hangings and child deaths. He asked why the educational system was “promoting” that, seemingly unaware that teaching about hard topics, or writing about them, is not the same thing as an endorsement.
The school board said Maus, although valuable literature with a valuable message, was just too “adult-oriented,” while individual members apparently complained about “nudity” (of cartoon mice), profanity (limited), violence and premarital sex.
I was in college when I first read Maus — and although Spiegelman's decision to draw his mother in the bathtub disgusted my father, I did not think that was a valid reason for me to stop reading it. Indeed, I think that if people are more offended by the drawings in Maus than by the acts it depicts, and the trauma and pain that drove these acts, they’re probably Maus’ target audience.
Also, by the time I was in eighth grade, I had heard every “swear” word that was in the book and knew full well that people have sex outside of marriage. I also had passing acquaintance with the Holocaust by that time, and given the impact Maus later had on me, I do think that had it been published when I was in eighth grade, the novel would have illustrated the horrors in a way a textbook could not.
That is a point I believe the Tennessee school board is missing. Younger people today are about 80 years removed from the Holocaust — and that matters. Some millennials and Gen Z folks (basically folks under 40), reported in a 2020 survey that they had never even heard the word “Holocaust” before, according to NBC News. Nearly half of American respondents couldn’t name a single concentration camp.
It would seem, then, that a book bluntly telling the story of the Holocaust in a format many younger people gravitate to might be a good idea.
There are two things that taught me best about why we truly must mean “never again” when it is said about the Holocaust.
One of those things was a visit to the Dachau concentration camp in 2019, a visceral experience that will stay with me until the day I die.
The other was Maus.
Not everyone will have access to Dachau. But access to Maus can be had for a few dollars — or even for free as part of public school curricula.
What do you think? Is eighth grade too young for a graphic novel that tells the gripping and grim story of a family during (and after) the Holocaust? If so, what might be a better way to teach the topic in a way that resonates and stays with students? Also, if you think Maus should be taught, feel free to drop a comment as to why.