In early January, a ten-member school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, voted unanimously to ban Maus, a graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade curriculum. The move followed a debate over the book’s content, its age appropriateness and the best way to teach children about the Nazis’ persecution of European Jews during World War II, reports Mel Fronczek for the Tennessean.
Now, widespread outcry sparked by the ban has led to increased demand for the book. Public interest spiked last week, according to Google Trends, ushering in a new wave of sales that pushed Maus to the top of Amazon’s history and graphic novel categories. As Maya Yang notes for the Guardian, a complete edition of the two-volume work also took second place on Amazon’s overall bestseller list.
American cartoonist Art Spiegelman published the first and second installments of Maus in 1986 and 1991, respectively. (Chapters first appeared in serial form in the comic anthology Raw in 1980.) In the nonfiction work, Spiegelman blends art, autobiography and history to relate the wartime experiences of his Polish Jewish parents, who survived imprisonment in the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration and extermination camp. The book’s present-day narrative follows Spiegelman’s fractious relationship with his father, Vladek, and ongoing reckoning with the loss of his mother, Anja, who died by suicide in 1968; Vladek, who shared his story with his son in the years leading up to his death in 1982, narrates the sections that take place in the past.
Spiegelman’s novel hinges on the true history of the Holocaust, the Nazis’ state-sponsored mass murder of roughly six million European Jews. In Maus, the cartoonist depicts different groups as anthropomorphized animals, with Jews shown as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs and so on. The work won a special citation Pulitzer Prize in 1992.
As David Corn of Mother Jones reports, the McMinn County school board deemed Maus inappropriate for 13-year-olds based in part on its inclusion of swear words and drawings of nude figures. One board member stated that he had not “seen the book [or] read the whole book,” instead admitting that he’d only “read the reviews.”
Another member, Tony Allman, argued, “[W]e don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.” Per the January 10 meeting minutes, he added, “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.”
Speaking with CNBC’s Dan Mangan last week, 73-year-old Spiegelman condemned the board’s decision as “Orwellian.” The artist and his supporters argue that the Tennessee officials’ decision amounts to censorship of Holocaust history and a violation of students’ First Amendment right to free speech.
“This is disturbing imagery,” Spiegelman tells Jenny Gross of the New York Times. “But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”
Across the country, individuals and conservative groups are attempting to ban books with “unprecedented” frequency, reports Mike Hixenbaugh for NBC News. Attempts to censor books in schools are nothing new, but historian Emily Knox tells Slate’s Aymann Ismail that social media has allowed people to more efficiently organize book-banning efforts.
In the first four months of the current school year alone, parents and community members in almost 100 school districts across Houston, Dallas, San Antonio and Austin submitted 75 formal requests to ban books from libraries. Only one such request was filed during the same period last year, notes NBC News. Ban attempts in Texas have particularly targeted young adult books that document the experiences of Black and LGBTQ people.
Responding last November to the uptick in book challenges, the American Library Association condemned “acts of censorship and intimidation.”
“We stand opposed to censorship and any effort to coerce belief, suppress opinion or punish those whose expression does not conform to what is deemed to be orthodox in history, politics or belief,” said the group in a statement. “The unfettered exchange of ideas is essential to the preservation of a free and democratic society.”