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A Tennessee school book ban is robbing students of history

The “Velshi Banned Book Club” looks at why the graphic novel poses such a threat to the book-banning right.

Three-quarters of the way through the first volume of Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel “Maus,” Spiegelman’s mother, Anja, learns that much of her family is imprisoned in Auschwitz or already dead. She begs Spiegelman’s father, Vladek, to let her die too. He responds gently and lovingly: “No, darling! To die, it’s easy... but you have to struggle for life! Until the last moment we must struggle together! I need you! And you’ll see that together we’ll survive.”

Removing “Maus” from school bookshelves may not have been the first stone cast in this ongoing ideological book banning battle, but it was undoubtedly one of the most significant at the time.

There are dozens of moments like that within the pages of “Maus” — visceral, tragic, raw, and all of them appallingly real.

Literature depicting this painful moment in history, while distressing, has been an important part of educating young people about the ills of the past. Yet “Maus” has faced calls to be banned, both in the United States and overseas. Last year in late January, the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee voted unanimously to remove “Maus” from its 8th-grade curriculum. The 10-person school board cited a few curse words, one instance of nudity, and discomfort with the general gruesomeness of the Holocaust: “Being in the schools, educators, and stuff we don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff,” a member of the school board reportedly said. “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff, it is not wise or healthy.”

Image: Comic book artist Art Spiegelman
Art Spiegelman attends his exhibition 'Co-Mix', in Paris, in 2012.Bertrand Langlois / AFP via Getty Images file

The school board’s decision thrust McMinn County into the national spotlight, and into the center of a debate about extreme censorship. The rebuke from the public was swift. Public figures, educators, and Holocaust organizations condemned the removal. “Maus” shot to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list, a professor at North Carolina’s Davidson College offered a free course on the book for the 8th graders in McMinn County, and students across the nation opened up a copy for the very first time.  

Despite the public outcry, a representative from McMinn County School Board confirmed with MSNBC that “Maus” has not been added back to the curriculum.

The “showing” here is part of the power of “Maus.” The reader is not just hearing about the depravity of the Holocaust; they’re seeing it. Spiegelman famously depicts his characters as animals: Jewish mice, Nazi cats, Polish pigs, French frogs, and American dogs, a representation of the common racist Nazi propaganda portraying Jewish people as “rats,” “vermin” or “sub-human.” The black-and-white drawings, especially of the mice, masterfully illustrate anguish, love, fear, and brutality. The illustrations serve to create space between the reader and the painful plot, but they do not lesson the effect of the novel.

Removing “Maus” from school bookshelves may not have been the first stone cast in this ongoing ideological book banning battle, but it was undoubtedly one of the most significant at the time, making it an easy and necessary choice to feature in our ongoing “Velshi Banned Book Club” project. For the past year and a half, we have spoken to the authors of dozens of banned and challenged books. The “Velshi Banned Book Club” started as a reaction to the removal of so many crucial titles, including “Maus,” but has become something more substantial. Reading, studying, and understanding the targeted titles is its own form of resistance.  

The “Velshi Banned Book Club” has explored the reasons why a book may be banned in the past: it could be the topic, the words themselves, or the author. “Maus” is being targeted for all of those reasons plus one more: the illustrations.

“Maus” is told through two interwoven timelines: 1978 New York City, where Spiegelman is gathering information from his father about his experience during the Holocaust, and Poland from 1935 to 1944, where his father’s story takes place. At its core, “Maus” is a memoir, a story about the Holocaust, but it also explores inter-generational trauma, the complexities of family, mental health, and enduring love.

The irony, of course, is that the discomfort is the entire point. “Maus” demands that its readers bear witness to genocide; the feeling in the pit of your stomach when you close this book is intentional.

Students may learn about the Holocaust through facts and figures — the number of deaths, the reasons why Hitler rose to power — but none of that tells the full story. It is easy to move past “6 million” written in a textbook when you do not understand the extent of the unspeakable pain or the names behind the numbers.

Importantly and obviously, reading about historical atrocities is not promoting them, as that school board member wrongly said. It’s creating awareness. It’s how we learn. And the chilling reality is that “Maus” tells a story that not everyone knows, one that we are forgetting as a nation and as a society. As Spiegelman is fond of saying in interviews: “Never again and again and again.”