In January 2022, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted to remove the graphic novel “Maus” from its eighth grade curriculum. Daily Arts Writers Emma Doettling and Hannah Carapellotti took two different approaches in their responses to this news: one shed light on how banning a book generates more interest in the title, while the other discussed the importance of what banned literature can teach us, despite its controversial labels.
Recent Tennessee book ban reignites interest in “Maus”
On Super Bowl Sunday, as we waited for the utterly empty restaurant to close, a conversation between my coworker and myself turned to banned books — yes, this is what we talk about at work. I had recently read in the news that “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman, was removed from the eighth grade school curriculum in McMinn County in eastern Tennessee. “Maus,” a novel commonly taught in middle and high school curricula, tells the story of a Holocaust survivor (based on the experiences of Spiegelman’s dad) through rendering Germans as cats and Jews as mice. McMinn County’s ban came after a unanimous vote by the school board, citing eight curse words, a nude drawing of a female mouse and the depictions of suicide as reasons for the ban.
When I brought up the “Maus” books ban, my coworker was reminded of a quote in Harry Potter (bless the Harry Potter series and the infinite life lessons it gives us). In “Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix,” when Professor Umbridge bans Harry’s tell-all interview sharing information about the Ministry of Magic, Hermione is ecstatic. “What exactly are you so happy about?” Harry asks her, to which she responds, “Oh Harry, don’t you see … If she could have done one thing to make absolutely sure that every single person in this school will read your interview, it was banning it!”
For us Muggles, “Maus” is Harry’s interview. And boy, was Hermione right. After the ban, interest in the graphic novel skyrocketed. The book immediately jumped to the top of multiple bestseller lists. On Amazon, “Maus” climbed to second on the Amazon overall bestseller list, and remains the best seller in the “Censorship and Politics” category even now, a month after the school board came to its decision. As I walk past local bookstores, I see the telltale Hitler-esque cat flashing menacingly in display windows. I hadn’t thought about the graphic novel since I read it for a freshman year college class, and now it is everywhere.
What makes a banned book so enticing to readers? Suddenly, there is something we shouldn’t see, so naturally, we want to know why. It’s like when someone tells you “don’t think about an elephant,” and the first thing that pops into your head is, of course, an elephant. Similarly, forbidden literature becomes intriguing, like an itch in the mind that begs to be scratched. We want to know what others think we shouldn’t know; as a result, when “Maus” was banned, readers flocked to read the graphic novel.
Many also called attention to “Maus” in a show of solidarity with the novel, the author and the story as a critical tool for learning about the Holocaust. The animated TV show “South Park” recently released an episode condemning censorship. The directors of education initiatives at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, Paul Regelbrugge and Gretchen Skidmore, each gave speeches in response to the “Maus” ban on the importance of teaching about the Holocaust through literature. Communities and public libraries made an effort to make the book more readily available. A professor in North Carolina started offering free online classes for middle and high schoolers. One of my classes organized an optional book club on “Maus.” Efforts to distribute, endorse and uplift the book swept through the country.
Though the “Maus” book ban in McMinn County was extremely controversial, the graphic novel is more popular than ever. Hermione got one thing right: as outraged as many are, the McMinn County school board did the best thing possible to reignite interest in “Maus.” An attempt at censorship had the opposite effect the school board intended — with the ban in place, more readers than ever are turning back to the timeless graphic novel.
Daily Arts Writer Emma Doettling can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The visual violence of “Maus” is its biggest selling point
Historical fiction has always been one of my favorite genres. I frequently come back to “The Book Thief” by Markus Zusak and “All the Light We Cannot See” by Anthony Doerr, both fictional accounts of World War II. The time period is fascinating and heartbreaking to me. “Maus” is a book I was always vaguely familiar with; the cover image of a swastika with a cat likeness of Adolf Hitler existed somewhere deep inside my mind. But my first real experience with the story came this year, when I had to read a chapter of it for class shortly after it was challenged in Tennessee. Our assignment was to analyze the graphic novel as a genre, but I quickly got swept up by the story itself. The place where I work has a copy of the first volume, and I read the entire thing in two hours. None of the copies of the second volume were available at my local library, but thankfully the neighboring town’s library had one left. Again I tore through it, and if I hadn’t been at work when I finished, I would have cried.
Memoirs from survivors, like Elie Wiesel’s “Night,” evoke a different level of heartbreak. The authors’ accounts seem fictional, but they aren’t. “Maus” falls somewhere in between — this is someone’s real experience, but the chosen medium of the graphic novel (and the cute-looking mice) almost desensitized me to the horror of what I was reading until the very end. I couldn’t put it down.
“Maus” is a story within a story. Its main premise is Spiegelman’s father Vladek recounting his experiences of the war, but the comic is also about how those experiences still affect him — and by extension, his family — years later. Toward the end of the first volume, Spiegelman is walking with Vladek, who picks up a piece of telephone wire on the street. “You always pick up trash!” Spiegelman grumbles. “Why can’t you just buy wire?” His father replies, “Pssh. Why always you want to buy when you can find?”
Some pages are full of horrible memories of the Auschwitz concentration camp, then suddenly Spiegelman is back in his father’s living room, making sure he’s getting the details right while Vladek scolds him in broken English. Spiegelman himself is a character, caught up not only in Vladek’s trauma but also his domestic struggles, as he and his second wife frequently argue. The drawings get a little meta at times, with Spiegelman drawing himself rushing to get a pencil to remember certain conversations and include them in the comics. It’s multifaceted and at times even humorous, altogether a stunning story about trauma and family.
A main critique of “Maus” when it was first released came from fellow cartoonist R.C. Harvey, who disliked Spiegelman’s use of animals to tell the story. He believed that doing so played into the Nazi belief that the Jews were a separate “species.” Would this story be better suited as a graphic novel with drawings of people? Or would it be better to not draw it as comics at all?
If “Maus” was a graphic novel depicting humans, featuring hanging criminals in the streets and German soldiers swinging children against a wall to stop them from screaming, then the decision to remove it from the eighth-grade curriculum on the basis of graphic violence would be different. It’s one thing to read a survivor’s account of the war, but seeing everything that he went through right in front of you, even in cartoon form, is an entirely different level of horror. By drawing animals instead of people, Spiegelman doesn’t have to shy away from depicting the true violence of the Holocaust. Though it wasn’t his intention to write for younger audiences, one might argue that the graphic novel format also makes the story more palatable — but even that isn’t enough for the Tennessee school board. “They said they did want to teach the Holocaust,” Spiegelman said in a recent interview, “But the impression I got from their language was that they wanted a nicer, fuzzier Holocaust than I’m presenting.” Even though the decision to draw everyone as animals makes the content easier to grasp, the horrors depicted don’t change. The only fuzziness anyone will get from “Maus” is from the characters’ fur.
Furthermore, if Spiegelman’s intention with his novel was to depict as clear of an image of the Holocaust as possible, then no other medium would suit “Maus” better than a graphic novel. There are countless stories about World War II already in circulation, both fictional and not. If Vladek’s story was written as prose, it wouldn’t have nearly the same impact — it might have “blended in” with the rest. The uniqueness of presenting this content visually allows for larger conversations to be had about wartime. There’s a page of panels early on in the novel, recounting Vladek’s time in the army in 1939. Spiegelman has drawn his father as a young boy, as a mere helmet with eyes, questioning why he should be shooting at anyone after only a few days of training. Later, though, he does shoot, and how is his target drawn? As a helmet with eyes. This artistic decision not only highlights the fearful experience of being thrust into combat at such a young age, but also allows audiences to notice these details for themselves. Not to mention, this kind of analysis is perfect for a classroom setting. After all, that’s where we learn about the atrocities of World War II in the first place. The Holocaust is difficult to comprehend, and “Maus” is difficult to read. That’s exactly why everyone should read it.
Daily Arts Writer Hannah Carapellotti can be reached at email@example.com.