Now We’re Banning Books Again (Sort Of): ‘Maus’ Off The Curriculum In Tennessee

by Richard Bruton

The news came in this week that a Tennessee school board had voted unanimously to remove Art Spiegelmans acclaimed holocaust graphic novel Maus from the 8th Grade language arts curriculum.

Art Spiegelman, March 20, 2012 – Image credit Bertrand Langlois | AFP | Getty Images

The McMinn County school board of Tennessee meeting debated the issue of removing Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel from the 8th Grade language arts curriculum (13-year-olds,) with concerns about mild swearing – one incidence of ‘god damn,’ and one panel of a naked mouse-headed woman, Spiegelman’s mother, in a bath after committing suicide.

Maus is still the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize and is acclaimed around the world for its storyline, with Spiegelman using anthropomorphic characters to show the horrors of the Holocaust, with Jews portrayed as mice and the Nazis as cats. It’s part autobiography, part historical treatise, coming from interviews Spiegelman conducted with his father – both his father and mother survived Auschwitz but Spiegelman’s mother committed suicide in 1968.

Since its release in collection in 1986, Maus has gone on to be critically lauded and also, importantly, a key educational text, for both children and adults, and is used in schools to teach the Holocaust.

Interviewed at CNBC, Spiegelman was reported as being ‘baffled’ by the decision, with CNBC saying this…

“Spiegelman also said he suspected that its members were motivated less about some mild curse words and more by the subject of the book, which tells the story of his Jewish parents’ time in Nazi concentration camps, the mass murder of other Jews by Nazis, his mother’s suicide when he was just 20 and his relationship with his father.” – CNBC

Or this from CNN, reported via Rolling Stone

“I think they’re so myopic in their focus and they’re so afraid of what’s implied and having to defend the decision to teach Maus as part of the curriculum that it led to this daffily myopic response.

It has the breath of autocracy and fascism about it.

I’m still trying to figure out how this could be… I think of it as a harbinger of things to come.” – Art Spiegelman

The minutes of the McMinn School Board’s decision is here (PDF). Having read it, it’s an important distinction to make that, as the report reads, they’ve made the decision to remove Maus from the 8th grade curriculum. There’s not, as far as I’ve read, any information there about removing the book from school libraries. It’s by no means a rabid ‘ban this book’ debate but something more considered than many reports would have it. It’s well worth reading the report and understanding the issues at play here.

Personally, I disagree vehemently with removing it from a curriculum for 13-year-olds. The idea that any modern 13-year-old could be in any way surprised or offended by ‘god damn’ or by an image of a naked woman (well, a female form with a mouse head) is just so ridiculous. And obviously, the teaching of the Holocaust is essential and something that should shock and horrify young people, as it should all of us.

There’s also the context of the issues of controlling literature to consider here. There’s been a slow increase in the number of graphic novels being objected to in education, particularly in the US, over recent years – with many of these graphic novels being objected to and banned due to racial history (and the whole critical race theory debate that rages across the right-wing in the US), LGBTQ+, feminist, and racist content.

As you’d expect, the reporting of the school board’s decision brought out many public figures to comment, with this from Neil Gaiman summing a lot of it up neatly and succinctly…

And finally, two interesting and positive things from this. There have been various generous offers on social media to send copies of Maus to anyone who finds themselves unable to get hold of a copy in the affected state. And as of writing, Maus has landed back on the bestseller charts.

It is, and always has been, essential reading, a graphic novel of power and historical import and it’s something that many, myself included, believe should be taught to more, not less, children.

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