The McMinn County School Board in Tennessee recently made headlines when its members voted unanimously to remove “Maus,” a critically acclaimed graphic novel documenting stories of the Holocaust, from its eighth-grade school curriculum. What is troubling about this development, however, goes beyond the direct effects of the book’s absence in classrooms. As the media labels this as a book ban, the lack of nuance between mature and salacious content only muddies the waters when we discuss what is and is not permitted within school environments.
“Maus” is not just another controversial book — it is one of the most well-rounded and human stories about the Holocaust, including events that precede and follow the genocide itself. A story of prejudice and intergenerational trauma, “Maus” is widely regarded as one of the greatest graphic novels ever written and remains the only graphic novel to have ever received a Pulitzer Prize. Author Art Spiegelman relies heavily on true accounts of the period from Holocaust survivors, most notably his own father. He portrays his Nazi characters as cats and his Jewish characters as mice, hence the title of the book — “Maus,” the German word for mouse.
Books like “Maus” possess the distinctive quality of being drawn from real stories of violence and despair. Whereas historical fiction maintains a level of distance between its subjects and reality, “Maus” offers no such respite. Spiegelman is deliberately relentless in exposing the true horrors of the Holocaust to his readers, both young and old. He relies on details of incredibly human emotions to create a sense of helplessness, beautifully conveying fear that is echoed in his audience. Characters are constantly playing a game of pretend, disguising their Jewish roots for fear of being attacked. Later, they are extremely conscious of the fate that awaits them when they are taken to concentration camps. The effects of this fear are felt even in the modern day through the descendants of Holocaust survivors, most notably Spiegelman himself. Despite the fiction injected into the book’s art style, its content could not be further from fantasy if it tried.
All of this makes the decision to remove “Maus” from McMinn County’s school curriculum all the more telling. There were complaints that the decision was motivated by antisemitism, though the board itself claims it chose to remove the book based on foul language, nudity and depiction of suicide. The news has thus headlined the incident as a book ban, the most recent instance in a concerning pattern of literary censorship by conservative parents. This has only led to a skyrocketing in sales for the book, as well as plenty of individuals offering to distribute copies of the book for free. Ironically enough, restricting access to “Maus” has put the book into more hands.
There are two prominent issues with McMinn County’s move to stop teaching “Maus” in its classrooms. The first concerns news coverage — the media has simplified this narrative to garner more attention and play into existing fears surrounding public education. News networks and publications have taken to calling the board’s decision a ban on “Maus.” In reality, “Maus” was never banned from classrooms, or taken off shelves or tossed from schools. Instead, “Maus” is simply no longer required reading for McMinn County’s eighth grade student body.
This is a small, yet noteworthy distinction. Pulling “Maus” from the school curriculum appears to fit a trend in recent months and years — restricting children’s access to content that may expose them to stories of hardship and trauma. It is inaccurate to call it a ban but “ban” is far more eye-catching than the word “controversy.” Article titles and headlines that use the phrase “book ban” are taking advantage of the well-rooted fear that education is being sanitized for our children.
Additionally, even ignoring the fact that the board cited the nudity of anthropomorphized mice as a reason to remove the book, the argument presented as rationale to remove “Maus” is altogether unconvincing. Though I hesitate to attribute the decision solely to antisemitic sentiments among the school board, it is evident that removing real stories of the Holocaust — and possibly replacing them with historical fiction like “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” which tells a Holocaust story but eliminates the Jewish perspective — will only be detrimental to the next generation. By removing the perspective of the victims — and even placing readers into the mindset of the victimizer — we run the risk of distorting truth with sanitized narratives.
If books are to be restricted, the reasons should go beyond claims that the content is too mature for kids. Furthermore, the media’s inclination to call McMinn County’s decision a book ban only blurs the line between what is real and what is sensationalized. Mature content — content that contains complex themes and difficult plotlines — is not the same as salacious or obscene material. Children must be allowed to learn from hard truths and painful histories, and adults must be taught not to overstep their bounds, especially when they verge into censorship. How can we teach them to do better if we do not first expose them to the mistakes of our past?
Samantha Cynn is an Opinion Columnist for The Cavalier Daily. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
The opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Cavalier Daily. Columns represent the views of the authors alone.