Why Maus Opened the Door to Comics as Literature in Schools

Maus’ wide acceptance in the English classroom during the early 2000s has led to comic books and graphic novels being accepted as literature.

Maus tackles real-world issues and provides an accessible way to do so. Its broad acceptance in the English classroom during the early 2000s helped open the door for several more graphic literature works to be considered valuable teaching material.

Before it convinced teachers, however, it had to convince the wider world. In 1992, Maus won the Pulitzer Prize. The Holocaust Museum remarked, “Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.” Edutopia, the George Lucas founded educational resource for teachers, describes Maus as “a top favorite for many, explores themes of the Holocaust through a memoir populated by mice and cats.”

Related: US Holocaust Museum Reacts to School Board Banning Pulitzer-Winning Graphic Novel

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These successes, along with very positive reviews from high-profile literary magazines, elevated the book as literature and made it acceptable for classroom use. For over two decades, teachers and students have read, analyzed, and discussed at the secondary and university levels to illuminate subjects such as history, sociology, language, and psychology.

While Maus has garnered more academic research than perhaps any other work of graphic literature, it has done so while opening the door for other books in the medium. The American Library Association (ALA) has established an annual International Graphic Novels and Comic Conference, elevating the graphic novel as an acceptable medium of literature. There is now in publication the Journal of Graphic Novels and Comics within academia. Even Kaplan has added graphic novels into their SAT prep coursework.

As early as 2001, English teachers were championing graphic novels in the classroom. This was reflected in The English Journal 2001, the official journal of the National Council of Teachers. In its pages, Rocco Versaci, a pioneer in the field of graphic novel utilization, stated, “[B]and placing a comic book-the basic form of which they no doubt recognize-into the context of a classroom, teachers can catch students off guard in a positive way, and this disorientation has, in my experience, led students to become more engaged by a given work.”

Related: Tennessee School Board Issues Statement Defending Maus Ban

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Coming soon after Maus, in 1994, Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics further pushed the academic study of comic books into the mainstream. McCloud’s book analyzed the relationship between reader and text. He explained the language of graphic literature and showed how easily a scholar could apply rigorous literary analysis to many comics.

The integration of comics in the classroom rapidly broadened from Spiegelman’s Maus. Other works gaining scholarly attention included the entire Sandman series by Neil Gaiman, Joe Sacco’s Palestine, and Joe Kubert’s Fax from Sarajevo. Past works overlooked in literary circles at their time, such as Watchmen Will Eisner’s A Contract with God, also came in for a re-evaluation. These graphic novels were widely available, done by notable professionals, and engagingly tackled complex subjects.

Today, it is not unusual for reading lists to include recommendations like Jeff Smith’s Bone as a door into The Odyssey and mythology. dog-man and The Bad Guys are often cited as good springboards for those interested in creative writing. Persepolis tells the story of a girl growing up in Tehran and increases cultural competence amongst students separated by thousands and thousands. The use of comic books as an educational tool continues to burgeon. Attempts to ban various content (for example, a Tennessee school board’s banning of Maus) will not stop their importance or utilization.

Keep Reading: Maus School Ban Inspires CA Retailer to Offer 100 Free Copies to Tennessee Residents

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