The author of the award-winning graphic novel “Maus,” which depicts the atrocities experienced by Jews imprisoned in Nazi concentration camps, expressed his disgust with a Tennessee school board’s unanimous vote earlier this month to remove his book from its curriculum during interviews with CNBC and CNN.
On Jan. 10, the McMinn County School Board unanimously voted to remove the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman from its eighth-grade language arts curriculum. According to minutes of the board meeting, members claimed to be concerned about profanity and an image depicting nudity in the book.
“Maus,” which won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992, draws from Spiegelman’s parents’ experiences in a Nazi concentration camp. It depicts Jews as mice and cats as Nazis.
Spiegelman told CNBC that he is “kind of baffled” by the vote to bar his book, which he wasn’t aware of until a blog post describing the “ban” began circulating on Twitter Wednesday — a day before Holocaust Remembrance day.
Spiegelman decried the school board’s vote to CNBC as “Orwellian.” He said he suspected that members’ complaints about some profanity is cover for discomfort with what’s at the heart of the book — the dark experiences of Jewish people in Nazi concentration camps, and the murder of Jews by Nazis.
“I think they’re so myopic in their focus and they’re so afraid of what’s implied and having to defend the decision to teach ‘Maus’ as part of the curriculum that it led to this kind of daffily myopic response,” Spiegelman told CNN.
The book also tells the story of the author’s mother’s suicide when Spiegelman was 20, as well as his relationship with his father. The image in the book that drew objections from the board was of his mother, naked, following her suicide.
“I’ve met so many young people who … have learned things from my book,” Spiegelman told CNBC.
“I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented,” Spiegelman continued to CNBC. “There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”
Minutes from the Jan. 10 meeting detail school board members airing concerns about “some rough, objectionable language” in the book.
“The values of the county are understood,” Director of Schools Lee Parkison said. “There is some rough, objectionable language in this book and knowing that and hearing from many of you and discussing it, two or three of you came by my office to discuss that.”
After claiming that he had consulted with the board’s legal counsel, Parkison said that the board decided that “the best way to fix or handle the language in this book was to redact it.”
“Considering copyright, we decided to redact it to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to,” Parkison said.
Tony Allman, a school board member, argued that schools and educators “don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”
“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,” Allman said, according to the minutes.
Julie Goodin, an assistant principal, pushed back. Goodin pointed to her past experience as a history teacher, explaining that there is “nothing pretty” about the Holocaust and that she views Spiegelman’s book as a “great way to depict a horrific time in history.”
“Mr. Spiegelman did his very best to depict his mother passing away and we are almost 80 years away. It’s hard for this generation, these kids don’t even know 9/11, they were not even born,” Goodin said, according to the minutes. “For me this was his way to convey the message. Are the words objectionable? Yes, there is no one that thinks they aren’t, but by taking away the first part, it’s not changing the meaning of what he is trying to portray and copyright.”
Rather then redact the book, the board meeting concluded with all 10 members voting to remove “Maus” from the eighth-grade curriculum.
“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 Museum said in a statement posted to Twitter. “Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.”
After the board’s vote drew public attention, it issued a statement on Thursday doubling down on its ban of Spiegelman’s book.
The board reiterated that it found the book’s “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide” to be “simply too adult-oriented” for students.
The board denied that its vote “diminishes the value” of “Maus” nor that it “disputes the importance” of teaching children about the dark history of the Holocaust.
“To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion,” the board said. “The atrocities of the Holocaust were shameful beyond description, and we all have an obligation to ensure that younger generations learn of its horrors to ensure that such an event is never repeated.”
“We simply do not believe that this work is an appropriate text for our students to study,” the board concluded.
The board’s vote comes as school boards nationwide have moved to remove from libraries and outright ban books, many of which depict the experiences of marginalized people. In the past year, videos of protesters at school board meetings who complained about so-called “pornographic” material in books have circulated online. The protesters are seen cherry-picking quotes from books they object to without context, prompting outrage.
In response, legislation to ban so-called “sexually explicit” books from schools has continued to mount on the state and local level. One example is Texas Gov. Greg Abbott’s (R) demand for investigations into whether students have access to what he described as “pornographic books” in public schools. Additionally, Abbott earlier this month announced his plans to amend the Texas Constitution with a Parent Bill of Rights if he wins re-election. Abbott argues that the bill will codify parents’ rights as the prime “decision-makers” when it comes to a child’s education and health care needs.