Tennessee school board’s ‘demented’ move to ban Holocaust novel Maus met with bafflement and anger

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A Tennessee school’s decision to ban a Pulitzer prize-winning novel about surviving the Holocaust has prompted angry reactions online, along with condemnation from the author himself.

The graphic novel Maus: A Survivor’s Tale by Art Spiegelman uses illustrations of mice and cats to tell the story of how the author’s parents survived Auschwitz during the Holocaust. It was serialised from 1980 to 1991 and, in 1992, became the first (and to date only) graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize – the Special Award in Letters.

On the McMinn County School board, 10 members unanimously agreed in favour of removing the novel from the eighth-grade curriculum, citing its use of eight curse words including the phrase “God Damn” and drawings of “naked pictures” of women.

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” the school’s director, Lee Parkison, is recorded as saying in a board of education meeting earlier this month.

Board member Tony Allman agreed that the “vulgar and inappropriate” content should be removed, adding: “We don’t need to enable or somewhat promote this stuff.”

Allman clarified he was “not denying” that the genocide and murder of six million Jews during the second world war was “horrible, brutal, and cruel”, but said it is “not wise or healthy” for children to be shown a book that “shows people hanging” and “shows them killing kids”.

Another board member, Cochran, said: “If I had a child in the eighth grade, this ain’t happening. If I had to move him out and homeschool him or put him somewhere else, this is not happening.”

He added: “We can tell them exactly what happened, but we don’t need all the nakedness and all the other stuff.”

Cochran accused the book of attempting to “indoctrinate” children, saying: “You put this stuff just enough on the edges, so the parents don’t catch it but the kids, they soak it in. I think we need to relook at the entire curriculum.”

The board eventually agreed that Maus should be banned from the school completely.

Spiegelman said he was “baffled” by this decision in an interview with CNBC on Wednesday. “It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’” the 73-year-old author said. He also called the ban “Orwellian”.

“I’ve met so many young people who… have learned things from my book,” Spiegelman said. “I also understand that Tennessee is obviously demented. There’s something going on very, very haywire there.”

Neil Gaiman, author of Good Omens, tweeted: “There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days.”

New York Times journalist Jane Coaston posted: “I read Maus when I was nine years old and it changed my life. It made me a better person, a more empathetic and compassionate person. I think Maus should be as widely read as possible.”

The US Holocaust Museum also condemned the move, tweeting: “Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. On the eve of International Holocaust Remembrance Day, it is more important than ever for students to learn this history.

“Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.”

Actor Carrie Coon wrote: “They can’t read Maus, but they can have access to an AR-15.”

Art Spiegelman in 2012 (AFP via Getty Images)
Art Spiegelman in 2012 (AFP via Getty Images)

Maus is a graphic novel that tells a Holocaust survivor’s tale. The Jews are mice. The Nazis are cats. It is powerful. It is gripping,” posted satirist Jeremy Newberger. “It is an excellent teaching tool about the Holocaust. The cursing is necessary. The TN School Board are wrong to ban it.”

Screenwriter Gary Whitta, meanwhile, was among those offering to send copies of Maus to people living in Mcminn county.

The ban on Maus arrives as conservative groups across the country, such as parent advocacy group Moms for Liberty, are pressuring schools to remove books from their libraries and curriculums. The books that cause offence often address race, LGBTQ issues and marginalised communities.

Last year, The American Library Association reported a troubling rise in organised attempts to ban – and in some cases even burn – library books.

In Virginia and Utah, Toni Morrison books have been removed from some school shelves due to “explicit” content. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home was also pulled in North Kansas due to its LGBTQ themes. In southern Pennsylvania, a long list of books – almost exclusively written by people of colour – were banned.