Art Spiegelman Speaks About Maus and its Place in Schools and Libraries

Banned and Challenged Books, Education, First Amendment

When local Jewish and other faith-based organizations learned of a Tennessee school board decision to ban Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust, from being taught in its classrooms, they responded by organizing a nationwide Zoom interview with author Art Spiegelman. The webinar was offered free to the public and offered an opportunity to hear Art Spiegelman’s thoughts on the banning of his book along with his views on the increased number of book challenges nationwide.  

Maus by Art Spiegelmans

It was sponsored by a broad consortium of faith-based organizations with the intention of providing first person information, knowledge and constructive discussion about the contents and purpose of the book. Sponsoring organizations include Ascension Lutheran Church of Chattanooga, TN; B’nai Zion Congregation, Chattanooga, TN; The Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga; Mizpah Congregation, Chattanooga, TN and the Tennessee Holler.

Art Spiegelman is an American cartoonist, editor, and comics advocate. His work as co-editor on the comics magazines Arcade and Raw have been influential. He spent ten years as a contributing writer and artist for The New Yorker. Book 1 of Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus, A Survivor’s Tale was published by Pantheon Books in 1986. The second volume was published in 1991, In 1992 it became the first and only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. 

According to minutes from that Tennessee school board meeting, the 10-person board, in McMinn County, TN voted on Jan. 10 to remove the book from the eighth-grade curriculum because the book contains material that board members said was inappropriate for students.

Members of the board said the book, which portrays Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats in a retelling of the author’s parents’ experience during the Holocaust, contained inappropriate curse words and a depiction of a naked character.

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” said Lee Parkison, the director of schools for McMinn County, in eastern Tennessee, according to minutes of the meeting. In a recent New York Times interview held on Holocaust Remembrance Day, Spiegelman stated, “This is disturbing imagery,” referring to his graphic novel, Maus. “But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”

During the webinar, Spiegelman stated that he knows and agrees there is some foul language in the book, but he says they weren’t bad enough to be censored on television. He also stated that he took offense to the drawing of his dead mother represented by a mouse being referred to as a “nude woman”.  Spiegelman shared that his contract is with the readers of his book. On the Tennessee Board’s opinions, “What they’re upset about is my relationship with my father…That’s where they focused.” 

In a statement, the school board said, in part “We do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities of the Holocaust. To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion.”

Read the full school board statement here.

During the webinar, Spiegelman shared that even he was initially suspicious of Maus being taught in school, but that he has come to understand that children are very open to being educated and learning the reality of these topics. He also shared that he thinks the decision comes from parents and adults “wanting to control their kids, under the guise of protecting them. What needs to be exercised is empathy and intelligence. Books have to be contextualized. The teachers have to be trusted as much as the young people need to be trusted… What is this? Why is this?… Faulkner said, ‘The past is never dead.’ The past is present. It’s made very visible in comics…My household was a suburb of Auschwitz.” 

Spiegelman used the page below from Maus, where his father talks about his affair, to show how he didn’t want to tell a watered down or purely factual story about the Holocaust. In explaining why he told the story the way he did, “My contract is with the reader: making a story that’s lucid. My trust (as an author) needs to be earned. I was breaking not only the taboo of doing serious stuff in comics, but of honoring my father and mother.”

At the webinar’s conclusion, Spiegelman said, “Maus has been very well received (over the years) and I’m grateful… It’s meant to be shocking because I was shocked. I’m being as open and vulnerable with my thoughts as I can. It’s not sanitized. It’s not simplified. I’m proud of that.” 

He shared that any foul language in the book accurately depicted his real emotions and the level of intensity during that point in his life. He also shared that his artistic choice to use mice as visual representations of people was meant “to make them more human. Everything in the book is about making people three dimensional with my two dimensional pictures,” Spiegelman said.

On writing the graphic novel, Spiegelman shared, “I wasn’t really trying to do anything other than… share. I thought (at the time), if I keep it honest and clear, it will do its job… I didn’t want to dumb it down. It would have been impossible to do this only as a historical text extracting myself from it. The story is what makes it compelling to readers.”

Book sales have increased since the controversial Tennessee school board decision was made. Comic book store owners in California and Tennessee have also offered free copies of the book to students. Ryan Higgins, owner of Comics Conspiracy in California tweeted that he’d ship 100 copies to families in McMinn County, Tennessee, where the Pulitzer-winning novel was banned from the curriculum. Knoxville Nirvana Comics announced it, too, would loan copies of Maus to students. The comic store started a GoFundMe page to raise money to donate novels to families. The fundraiser passed its goal of $20,000, receiving more than $101,000 at last count.

While it’s not the first time Maus has been the subject of controversy, Spiegelman said he is alarmed by the number of school boards nationwide banning books amid heated debates over the teaching of race, slavery and history. As news spread about the school board’s decision, the U.S. Holocaust Museum said, “Maus has played a vital role in educating students about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. I’m glad that teachers are willing to take it on. Children need to learn how to be graphically literate as well as verbally literate…Teachers are noble with so ridiculously low salaries. To make that job more hobbled so they all flee to jobs as waiters and waitresses where they are better paid, it’s tragic and that’s where we’re headed. The School Board decision is helping that. The School Board members want a fuzzier, warmer, gentler Holocaust that shows how great the Americans were to liberate… My father said, ‘We weren’t liberated. The war ended.’ My book is not any less lurid than it needs to be. The way I did it was to make it as clear as possible.”

Attendance at the nationwide Zoom webinar included classroom teachers, school librarians and members of faith-based organizations from around the country. 

“On the eve of International #HolocaustRemembranceDay, it is more important than ever for students to learn this history,” the US Holocaust Museum said January 26th on Twitter. “Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.”

The Push to Ban Books Across America

(*Source- NY Times)

Parents, activists, school board officials and lawmakers are increasingly contesting children’s access to books.

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