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Art Spiegelman decries Tennessee school board for removing 'Maus' from its curriculum

The comic book artist Art Spiegelman poses on March 20, 2012 in Paris. A Tennessee school district has voted to ban Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust, <em>Maus</em>, from its curriculum.
Bertrand Langlois
/
AFP via Getty Images
The comic book artist Art Spiegelman poses on March 20, 2012 in Paris. A Tennessee school district has voted to ban Spiegelman's graphic novel about the Holocaust, <em>Maus</em>, from its curriculum.

Updated January 30, 2022 at 2:48 PM ET

Author Art Spiegelman says he felt "jaw-dropping disbelief" upon learning about the decision from a Tennessee school district to ban his graphic novel about the Holocaust.

"This has been used in schools for a very long time, usually from middle school on up," he told NPR and WBUR's Here and Now on Friday.

Spiegelman's Maus, which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, tells the story of his relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, and it depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.

The 10-member McMinn County School Board voted unanimously earlier this month to remove Maus from its curriculum and replace it with an alternative, which hadn't been decided at the time of the vote.

"We are here because some people objected to the words and the graphics used in the book," board member Rob Shamblin said during the meeting, according to the minutes posted on the school board's website.

Spiegelman told Here and Now that the board's decision is "not good for their children, even if they think it is."

The vote came ahead of Holocaust Remembrance Day

News of the Jan. 10 meeting trickled out this past week as the world was preparing to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day, which is the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp in 1945.

"Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors," the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum said in a series of tweets. "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 board said students should learn about the Holocaust, but Maus is the wrong book

At issue are "eight curse words" and the image of a nude woman, according to McMinn County Schools director Lee Parkison. The board discussed censoring the language and imagery it deemed inappropriate but ultimately decided to discard the novel outright.

Jonathan Pierce, the board member who initiated the vote to remove Maus from the eighth-grade curriculum, said during the meeting that the Holocaust should be taught in schools, but this is not the book to do it.

"Our children need to know about the Holocaust, they need to understand that there are several pieces of history ... that shows depression or suppression of certain ethnicities. It's not acceptable today," Pierce said, according to the meeting minutes. "[But] the wording in this book is in direct conflict of some of our policies."

In response to the board's stated concerns about objectionable words and nudity in the book, Spiegelman told Here and Now that the words are used judiciously and the portrayal of nudity involves the depiction of his mother's suicide — not anything sexual.

The book "is hardly a presentation of bad language and hot sex," he said. "It's so far from that."

There's been growing momentum recently among some Republican leaders to ban certain books in schools, particularly those dealing with issues of race and LGBTQ identity. According to the American Library Association, the number of attempts to ban school library books was 67% higher last September than in the same month the year before.

This isn't the first time Maus has faced a ban. Russia pulled the graphic novel from bookstores in 2015 over the swastika depicted prominently on its cover, because the country was trying eliminate depictions of the symbol as it commemorated the Soviet Union's victory over Nazi Germany in World War II.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Corrected: January 28, 2022 at 12:00 AM EST
A previous version of this story misspelled McMinn County Schools director Lee Parkison's last name as Parkinson.