I read Maus, a graphic novel by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman in my high school English class. Maus tells the story of Spiegelman’s father Vladek Spiegelman’s Holocaust experience and recounts the effects the holocaust had on its survivors. Published in 1991, Maus, a nonfiction work presented in graphic novel style, details the harsh reality of life in concentration camps. This novel is gripping because Spiegelman’s animal illustrations represent the novel’s characters; mice as Jews, cats as Nazis, pigs as Poles, dogs as Americans, fish as British, frogs as the French, and deer as the Swedish. Classified by literary critics as a mix of literary genres, Maus is the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.
I am familiar with the holocaust as I am the history of slavery, but lack a clear understanding of the lingering effects of these ills on our present-day society. Reading Maus made me appreciate the depths one endures to protect oneself and loved ones and opened my eyes to the lingering effects of holocaust tortures. Unlike the sanitized teachings of this history in my elementary and high school, Maus is raw, honest, and magnifies sensitive issues.
While scholars find Maus appropriate for schools and libraries, a Tennessee school board has banned Maus from its eighth-grade language arts curriculum. Members of the Jewish community, social activists, teachers, parents, and librarians spoke out against the Tennessee school board’s desire to ban the novel. Still, these voices were unsuccessful in persuading the board to change course. A nude illustration of a deceased mouse character and the book’s profanity was central to the board’s decision. The Associated Press reported Spiegelman’s response: “This is about othering and what’s going on now is about controlling … what kids can look at, what kids can read, what kids can see in a way that makes them less able to think, not more. And it takes the form of the criticisms from this board.” Reading things that may be uncomfortable to some educates us on this past and how to change the future.
Maus has not been the only book that a school board has banned. In Texas, Republican State Representative Matt Krause has at least 850 books on a watch list. His list responds to the Texas House Bill 3979, an anti-Critical Race Theory bill banning teaching issues someone might consider uncomfortable. Some of the books on his list deal with race or LBGTQ+ issues.
Book banning has a long history all over the world. According to Harvey J. Graff, professor emeritus of English and history and Ohio Eminent Scholar at the Ohio State University, “Previous banning movements did not overly concentrate on race, aim to empty libraries or associate so closely with one political party. The people behind these movements prided themselves on their direct familiarity with the explicit contents of that which they wished to ban (or even burn). They used their literacy in their brazen efforts to control the uses of others’ literacy. Today’s banners and burners, by contrast, are the new illiterates, achieving a rare historical distinction.”
In the words of Spanish-American philosopher George Santayana, “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat.” Sadly, banning praised and celebrated novels that explore difficult, historical, or topical life experiences has resurfaced. Is it better to be blissfully ignorant of the past? If someone wants to challenge the message of books they disagree with, they have that right. But those who do so shouldn’t assume that what is best for some is best for all. Removing controversial books from public consumption bans free thought, stifles discussion, magnifies human ignorance, and vilifies human differences.