NASHVILLE, Tenn. — The author of “Maus,” a graphic novel about the Holocaust, has condemned a Tennessee school board’s vote to remove the novel from its curriculum as “absurd.”
The McMinn County School Board in eastern Tennessee voted 10-0 earlier this month to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning book, citing concerns over “rough” language and a nude drawing of a woman, according to the Jan. 10 meeting minutes posted to the district website. The book was part of its eighth grade English and language arts curriculum.
The graphic novel, written by comic artist Art Spiegelman, tells the story of his Jewish parents living in 1940s Poland and follows them through their internment in Auschwitz. Nazis are portrayed as cats, while Jewish people are shown as mice. The book also includes conversations between Spiegelman and his elderly father as he convinces him to tell his story.
While it’s not the first time “Maus” has been the subject of controversy, Spiegelman said he is alarmed by school boards nationwide banning books amid tense debates over the teaching of race, slavery and oppression.
“This is not about left versus right,” Spiegelman told The Tennessean, part of the USA TODAY Network. “This is about a culture war that’s gotten totally out of control.”
Spiegelman was awarded a Pulitzer for the book in 1992.
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As news spread about the school board’s decision, the US 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.”
“On the eve of International #HolocaustRemembranceDay, it is more important than ever for students to learn this history,” the museum said Wednesday on Twitter without mentioning the district. “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 move came after a discussion among board members and instructional supervisors about the book’s content and how best to teach students about the Holocaust. Eight “curse words” and the nude drawing were at the forefront of the concerns over the book, according to the board minutes.
“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” McMinn County Director of Schools Lee Parkison said during the meeting. He did not immediately respond for comment early Thursday.
Board member Tony Allman said he was concerned about scenes in the book where mice were hung from trees and children were killed. The book also depicts suicide.
Instructional supervisor Julie Goodin, a former history teacher, said she believes the book represents the brutality of the Holocaust.
“There is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history,” she said.
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Instructional supervisor Melasawn Knight Knight pointed out that, as a teacher, she taught several books with things like vulgar language and violence, including “Bridge to Terabithia,” “The Whipping Boy” and “To Kill a Mockingbird.”
The school board discussed redacting the parts of the book in question and reaching out to the author on what was allowed. Ultimately, copyright concerns prevailed and the board voted to remove the book and search for an alternative.
The school board released a statement Thursday afternoon defending its decision, citing the “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide” in the book.
“Taken as a whole, the Board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools,” part of the statement read.
Spiegelman said he’s happy the book has “an afterlife” as a teaching tool and he believes it can spark conversations and deeper understanding about genocide and oppression.
“It’s a book that breaks through in a way that others can’t,” he said. “It allows an entry point for people. I just don’t want it to be boxed in as only about the Holocaust or only about the Jews.”
Elsewhere in Tennessee, a Williamson County schools committee recommended the removal of the book “Walk Two Moons” by Sharon Creech from its elementary school curriculum, citing “objectionable content” and “emotionally weighted topics” that may not be suitable for children. The book was one of 31 submitted by a chapter of Moms for Liberty, a group a co-founder said is grounded in “conservative values,” with chapters across the nation.
The committee did not remove the other books, but flagged seven for “instructional adjustments,” including: “Sea Horse: The Shyest Fish in the Sea by Christine Butterworth; “Feelings” by Aliki; “Separate is Never Equal: Sylvia Mendez and Her Family’s Fight for Desegregation” by Duncan Tonatiuh; “Love that Dog” by Sharon Creech; “Hatchet” by Gary Paulsen; “George v. George: The American Revolution as Seen from Both Sides” by Rosalyn Schanzer; and “The River Between Us” by Richard Peck.
Both decisions come as schools across the nation grapple with increasingly vocal parent concerns about topics taught in the classroom and the role parents should have in choosing what children are taught.
Find reporter Rachel Wegner on Twitter @rachelannwegner.