A Tennessee school board has voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth grade language arts curriculum due to concerns about profanity and an image of female nudity in its depiction of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.
The Jan. 10 vote by the McMinn County School Board, which only began attracting attention Wednesday, comes amid a number of battles in school systems around the country as conservatives target curriculums over teachings about the history of slavery and racism in America.
“I’m kind of baffled by this,” Art Spiegelman, the author of “Maus,” told CNBC in an interview about the unanimous vote by the McMinn board to bar the book, which is about his parents, from continuing to be used in the curriculum.
Comic book artist Art Spiegelman poses on March 20, 2012 in Paris, prior to the private viewing of his exhibition ‘Co-Mix’, which will run at the Pompidou centre. The Swedish-born New Yorker Spiegelman, 62, is known as the creator of “Maus”, an animal fable of his Jewish father’s experience in the Holocaust — the only comic book to have won a Pulitzer Prize, the top US book award.
Bertrand Langlois | AFP | Getty Images
“It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?'” said Spiegelman, 73, who only learned of the ban after it was the subject of a tweet Wednesday – a day before International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
He called the school board “Orwellian” for its action.
Spiegelman also said he suspected that its members were motivated less about some mild curse words and more by the subject of the book, which tells the story of his Jewish parents’ time in Nazi concentration camps, the mass murder of other Jews by Nazis, his mother’s suicide when he was just 20 and his relationship with his father.
“I’ve met so many young people who … have learned things from my book,” said Spiegelman about “Maus.” The image in the book that drew objections from the board was of his mother.
“I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented,” said Spiegelman. “There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”
Tennessee has been won by every Republican presidential nominee since 2000. Then-President Donald Trump in 2020 won McMinn County with nearly 80% of the votes cast.
Neil Gaiman, author of “The Sandman” comic book series and other award-winning works, blasted the school board’s action, writing on Twitter, “There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days.”
In a statement posted on its website Thursday, after numerous media articles detailed the controversy, the McMinn County Board of Education said the board voted to remove “the graphic novel Maus from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole the board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.”
The school board added in their statement that they “do not diminish the value of Maus as an impactful and meaningful piece of literature, nor do we dispute the importance of teaching our children the historical and moral lessons and realities 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 such an event is never repeated.”
Two books of the graphic novel “Maus” by American cartoonist Art Spiegelman are pictured in this illustration, in Pasadena, California, U.S., January 27, 2022.
Mario Anzuoni | Reuters
In “Maus,” different groups of people are drawn as different kinds of animals: Jews are the mice, Poles are pigs and Nazi Germans — who had a notorious history of banning and burning books — are cats. It has won a slew of awards, including a 1992 Pulitzer Prize.
Minutes from the Jan. 10 meeting of the McMinn School Board show that Director of School Lee Parkison opened the session by saying: “The values of the county are understood. 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.”
Parkison said he had “consulted with our attorney” and as a result “we decided 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.
But board members worried that might violate the book’s copyright, the minutes show.
One member, Tony Allman, was quoted in the minutes as saying, “Being in the schools, educators and stuff we 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, replied to Allman, saying, “I can talk of the history, I was a history teacher and there is nothing pretty about the Holocaust and for me this was 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.”
Allman then replied to Goodin, saying: “I understand that on TV and maybe at home these kids hear worse, but we are talking about things that if a student went down the hallway and said this, our disciplinary policy says they can be disciplined, and rightfully so. And we are teaching this and going against policy?”
The meeting ended with all 10 members of the board voting to remove “Maus” from the eighth grade curriculum.
School board member Rob Shamblin told a CNBC reporter Wednesday night he did not remember when the board took its vote. He declined to comment further and referred questions to Brown, the board’s president.
Spiegelman later emailed CNBC an image of a bookmark he created in 2014 after his publisher asked for one that could be distributed to libraries.
It shows a cartoon mouse behind a book and says: “Keep your nose in a book – and keep other people’s noses out of which books you choose to stick your nose into!”