Maus by
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Prompted By Banned Books

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On May 10, 1933, university students burned more than 25,000 “un-German” books in Berlin’s Opera Square (pictured below). 40,000 people gathered to hear Nazi chief of propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, make a speech in which he said, “No to decadence and moral corruption!” Sound familiar?

This past January, the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee voted unanimously to ban Maus, a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about the Holocaust, from being taught in its 8th grade classrooms. The book was removed from the school curriculum because board members said some of the material was “inappropriate for students.” They were most upset not about its content depicting the Holocaust, but rather because “of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide.”

“Nudity” of mother’s suicide in the tub

 

Nude mice in shower at Auschwitz

The “inappropriate words” included damn, God damn, shut up, shit, and bitch, all words that eighth graders know and use. There were unpleasant images of mice hanging and baby mice being killed. Worst of all, the book includes an image of a partially nude woman (Spiegelman’s mother who committed suicide in the bathtub), as well as some nude mice being sent to the showers in the concentration camp.

He said “damn”

 

More bad language every 8th grader has heard before

Now I was curious. I had never read Maus, or any other graphic novel. But like so many others who loath the notion of banning books, I ordered two copies on Amazon, one for me and one for my 16-year-old granddaughter. The books took a while to arrive because so many other readers did the same thing that Maus went to the top of Amazon’s best sellers list. Banning a book only makes people want to read it more.

After the Tennessee school board banned Maus, many copies of the book were donated to the local public library. High school students were as eager as my granddaughter to find copies of the book. Emma Stratton, a junior at McMinn County High School, said, “If they take away this book, what else are they going to take away from us. They’re trying to hide history from us.”

I was amazed by my first experience with a graphic novel. Not only did Spiegelman tell his parents’ story of surviving Auschwitz and the Holocaust, but he did so through drawing anthropomorphic mice as the Jews, cats as the Nazis, pigs as the Poles, and frogs as the French. As I read, I understood why the book was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize. Spiegelman both created a plot that alternated between his point of view as he tried to entice his father to tell him the story and his father’s recollections, and he had to decide how to arrange the panels containing his illustrations of the plot.

The character of Art’s father resonated with me as Spiegelman captured the syntax of English spoken by a native Yiddish speaker. Vladek spoke exactly like my grandparents. Spiegelman’s difficult and complex relationship with his father reflected what many children of survivors experienced. That a graphic novel could reveal the depth of Artie’s feelings, both deeply angry and loving, is an amazing accomplishment. A book so filled with history and interesting characters should not be removed from school curricula and libraries.

Growing up, I don’t remember books being banned, with the exception of the ones my mother hid in her nightstand. Books like Peyton Place and Lolita were banned in some places for their sexual content, but my friends knew exactly what pages to read and I will confess now to taking a look. I don’t think I read the whole book, just the “good parts,” but I survived with my morality intact. In high school, I know I read Huckleberry Finn, The Catcher in the Rye, The Great Gatsby, The Grapes of Wrath, and Lord of the Flies. All of these titles have been banned but no one objected to them being taught to me. As a high school English teacher, my classes studied these books as well as additional novels that had been banned like To Kill a Mockingbird, Flowers for Algernon, and Catch 22. No one raised any objections.

Today’s criteria for banning a book

According to Slate, we are now in an era in which people are pushing hard for more bans of books like Maus. Is this a symptom of increased Holocaust denial? Do some parents fear that exposing their children to ideas and values different from theirs will somehow corrupt them? What is the knowledge and history that must be taught and preserved? Spiegelman wondered if the Tennessee school board members wanted to teach a “nicer Holocaust.” Or perhaps, no Holocaust at all. I have these concerns and more, as parents and state legislators push to ban additional books from school libraries that make students feel uncomfortable about their race or gender.

Banning and burning books is characteristic of totalitarian societies. It is painful to see this trend on the rise in 2022 America.

Banned because of hanging mice

Profile photo of Laurie Levy Laurie Levy
Boomer. Educator. Advocate. Eclectic topics: grandkids, special needs, values, aging, loss, & whatever. Author: Terribly Strange and Wonderfully Real.

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Characterizations: moving, well written

Comments

  1. Khati Hendry says:

    I appreciate your thoughtful and detailed review of Maus, and it sounds as if it should be required reading, not banned. Good literature generally does address important issues in ways that bring them to life, and challenges people to examine their world. If only the world became a nicer place if we all ignored things that make us uncomfortable, but instead it means we don’t make improvements.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      So true, Khati. If people close their eyes to history and keep their children from learning about anything unpleasant, of course these children are doomed to repeat these terrible things. We seem to be very fearful of letting children learn to think for themselves — a very bad thing for our future.

  2. John Shutkin says:

    A wonderful, and very troubling analysis of Maus and the context in which it is being banned. The irony of a Holocaust-themed book being banned is, of course, inescapable. And that it is being done by a US state all the more horrific.

    My takeaway from this, the predicted overturning of Roe and other such clearly objectionable and unconstitutional actions is that there is a broad spectrum of this country that, ignoring the First Amendment (though never the Second, of course), wants the U S to embrace Christianity as its “official” religion. That this movement has been so emboldened by such a non-religious heathen as Trump would be humorous if it weren’t so dangerous.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      So true, John. I try to hold out hope, but the signs are very bleak. How did we get here? Perhaps banning books and discouraging thinking opens people to things like the Big Lie, overturning abortion, replacement theory, and anything else Tucker Carlson tells them to embrace.

  3. Marian says:

    A nicer Holocaust? No wonder our kids can’t think and crumple at the slightest challenge. This is a superbly written description of Maus and all the issues arising from it being banned. Troubling indeed, but thanks for writing this story.

    • Laurie Levy says:

      I’m so glad I talked my book club into reading Maus. It was an eye-opener for all of us who had never picked up a graphic novel before. I fear schools in many parts of the country no longer teach about the holocaust.

  4. Suzy says:

    Thank you for such a comprehensive review of Maus, complete with some of the illustrations. I said in my story that I wanted to read it, and now that you have brought it to life, I am even more eager to get my hands on a copy.

    The “reason key” you provide for why books are banned is frightening. Even the one I might agree with (poorly written) is not a good reason to ban a book, because it is so subjective. And the others are outrageous. As you say, it is painful to see this trend on the rise in this time and place.

  5. Yes Laurie, wouldn’t it have been great if there had been a “nicer Holocaust”.

    I had many copies of Maus in the high school library I ran and couldn’t keep them on the shelves, the students were so intrigued.
    And by the way our student body had not a single Jewish kid – all were Black or Brown.

  6. Thank you for a well-done celebration of this wonderful novel. AS you note, it isn’t just a story about the Holocaust but about the conflicts and mental health challenges that are encountered by a boy as he grows up under the parenting of a Holocaust survivor with all the baggage that implies. It’s incredibly multi-leveled.
    Now that you got over your prejudice about the depth and artistry of the graphic novel format, may I suggest Persepolis, American Born Chinese, and Deogratias?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      Thanks for the suggestions, Dale. One of my sons-in-law is a major graphic novel fan. I will ask him if the books you suggested are in his collection. I am definitely open to reading more graphic novels. Never too late to learn something new.

  7. Dave Ventre says:

    I didn’t know what to write about for this prompt. Now, I do.

  8. Betsy Pfau says:

    Thank you for this insightful discussion of Maus and why books are banned, in general. I think you are correct in your assumptions that people fear they may not be able to control other’s thoughts or what their children are learning (of course, by banning material, they make it more desirable – your read the “naughty” parts of your mother’s hidden books). And certainly, everyone needs to learn about history. An uninformed electorate is easily swayed by autocrats, as we saw in 2016. It is only getting worse. How did people like Marjorie Taylor-Greene get elected?

    • Laurie Levy says:

      It is getting so much worse, Betsy. Look at Uvalde, TX. All of those big gun-loving heroes failed to try to save 19 children and 2 teachers. Good guys with guns are not the answer. Nor are thoughts and prayers. Pardon my rant, but seeing people like Marjorie Taylor-Green posing with an assault rifle makes me sick.

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