Content Warning: This review discusses nudity as well as depictions of violence, genocide, and suicide.
On January 10, 2022, the McMinn County School Board voted unanimously to remove Maus – a 1986 graphic novel by Art Spiegelman – from its 8th grade curriculum. Their main concerns were the profanity, brief nudity, and depictions of violence and suicide. Since that decision was made public, there has been international attention, most of that was outrage. A lot of the people who were against the removal argue that the graphic novel is most accessible way to teach the Holocaust in its most frank form to students, while those who are for claim that it wasn’t age appropriate for 8th graders. On a personal level, the two books in this series – Maus I and II – have intrigued me for years. Now that I’ve read both, I can definitely say that even though I understand the school board members’ concerns, Maus as a whole need to be read across the country.
Maus recounts the horrors that the author’s father faced during the Holocaust and how he survived with the Jews protrayed as mice and the Nazis as menacing cats. It also weaves in the story of a fraught relationship between the two men and the legacy of generational trauma.
As I mentioned earlier, I do have personal interest in Maus. When I was in my historiography class in my senior year of college, my professor – the awesome Mrs. Bethany Kilcrease – discussed how certain events in history have been framed to a wider audience. An example she used was indeed Maus to frame Holocaust as a cat and mouse game. While it was controversial for its depictions of Jew people as mice and Nazis as cats, the graphic novel has received alot of acclaim since then, and it has been considered a great example how to depict that horrific event without sugarcoating it. It was even awarded a Pulitzer Prize in 1992. It’s the only graphic novel to get that accolade so far. At the time that I found out about it, it seemed odd to me about portraying certain races as animals, but once I discovered this quote from Hitler himself: “The Jews are undoubtedly a race, but they are not human,” it made a lot of sense. Depicting the Jewish people as animals makes it devastatingly clear how the Nazis and other Germans saw the them and how race played a huge role in identity. In addition, Polish people are depicted as pigs, while the Americans are dogs. These illustrate where they stood in the cat-and-mouse game.
A lot of Holocaust stories tend to emphasize the suffering of the Jewish people during that horrific part of history. While his parents Vladek and Anja experienced hardships during that time, Spiegelman primarily focuses on what they did to survive. In Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale: My Father Bleeds History, he shows how his parents tried to evade capture by the Nazis. They do this by hiding in various places like cellars of those who were willing to take them in and Vladek getting various jobs that allowed him to forge important connections.
In Maus II: A Survivor’s Tale: And Here My Troubles Began, Spiegelman displays what Vladek did to survive Auschwitz. For example, Vladek helps a Polish officer learn English because the latter knew that the Americans would come, so he figured knowing that language would aid him in the long run. The author doesn’t hold back when showing the horrors done at that concentration camp with every possible opportunity. The black and white images show hung dead mice and even them being burned alive. It’s definitely not for someone who is easily triggered by content like that.
In addition, in one section of Maus II, the author is shown wearing a mouse mask at a desk that’s on top of a bunch of dead mice. Other reviewers have pointed out the symbolism, but it’s worth repeating that it’s a great depiction of one man’s burden to tell the tales of those who vanished in the Holocaust and how being Jewish doesn’t entirely define one’s identity.
Another aspect that I’ve enjoyed both in Maus I and II is that Vladek is portrayed as a flawed individual. He constantly tries to save money in extreme ways and gets into constant arguments with his son about various things. Also, he barks at Art when the latter and Art’s wife Francoise pick up a black dog (uh, I mean man) from the side of the road. Vladek feared that he would steal their groceries. His racism against black people is definitely seen as hypocritical given the persecution he faced as a Jewish person in 1930s and 1940s Europe. In addition, in Maus I, when Art wants to find Anja’s journal to see what she went through during the Holocaust, Vladek refuses to give him a clear answer. It isn’t until the end of the first book that it’s revealed that the latter burned it because he didn’t want to be reminded of her presence. Art calls him a murderer.
To balance all of this darkness out, Spiegelman also infuses plenty of humor. All of this comes naturally (and I would assume based on real life). For example, in Maus II, Vladek wants to return some cereal that’s nearly empty, so he could get a refund and buy more groceries. I know some frugal people in my life, but that’s taking it to a whole new level.
Now, let’s get to the bottom of why I decided to read Maus in the year of 2022. I’m sure many readers have heard about the news of its removal from an 8th grade curriculum by the McMinn County School Board and why. After reading the graphic novel and the meeting minutes, I’ve come to these conclusions:
- Many books contain mild swear words like “god damn.” Teachers can easily omit that part while reading certain sections out loud.
- The brief nudity that a lot of the members objected to occurs when Anja’s body is discovered in Art’s comic about how he dealt with her suicide in Maus I. It depicts her torso and breasts with nipples along with mentions of razor blade cuts. It’s only in 1 panel. On the other hand, I noticed that there were more panels that showed mouse penises in Maus II during the scenes in Auschwitz even though the latter body part is shown with less detail. It definitely made me raise my eyebrows because reading through the minutes of that meeting, no one ever mentioned the penises. Some may call this sexist.
- Violence and suicide were some of the sad halmarks of the Holocaust. To express discomfort with that means that one will have a hard time learning about that gruesome time in history and teaching it to others later on. While it’s possible to left some details out depending on how young the students are, no one should completely omit those aspects of the Holocaust. In fact, in middle school, I was assigned a book called Under the Persimmon Tree by Suzanne Fisher Staples. That novel took place in Afghanistan and Pakistan in the early 2000s. Its main character – an Afghan girl named Najmah – finds herself alone in the beginning of the book when her father and older brother are conscripted by the Taliban and her mother and newborn brother are killed in an air raid. I specifically remember reading the descriptions of how Najmah views the body of her baby brother. Although the violence depicted in Under the Persimmon Tree is not as graphic as it is in Maus, it’s still a presence in both books. As far as I know, no parent complained about us 7th graders reading it. One can never eliminate those horrific elements of any war-related story. People including children need to be ready to hear them.
- Spiegelman never intended for his graphic novel to be read by kids. This is why he was fine with the removal at first. Yet, he found their reasonings to be “deeply troubling” because those elements that the board were uncomfortable with were “crucial to telling his family’s story in a believable way”
Overall, Maus by Art Spiegelman is brutally honest story of how his parents survived the Holocaust and how that affected him. Its black and white images provide stark ways to depict many elements of the story. The visual of the Jewish people as mice and the Germans as cats remains iconic to this very day. At the same time, there’s plenty of humor in it to balance out the horror. I would recommend this to those who like graphic novels and want more non sugarcoated tales about the Holocaust. I’ll even recommend it for 8th graders and up as long as they know exactly what they’re getting into. Stories like these need to be told as authentically as possible.
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