Art Speigelman Denounces Tennessee School District’s Ban of His Graphic Novel ‘Maus’: ‘It Has a Breath of Autocracy and Fascism’

The school board insists the decision was made over eight swear words.

Artist Art Spiegelman author of Maus, an animal fable of his Jewish parents' experience in the Holocaust. The book is the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer Prize, but it has still run afoul of the censors. Photo by Bertrand Langlois/AFP via Getty Images.

A Tennessee school board has voted to ban Art Spiegelman’s landmark graphic novel Maus due to profanity and nudity. The book tells the true story of the artist’s parents’ internment at Auschwitz concentration camp during the Holocaust, and how his mother killed herself after the war.

The district’s decision to censor the book, because it said the material was inappropriate for students, “has the breathe of autocracy and fascism about it,” Spiegelman told CNN. The artist also noted that “the nudity is specifically a small image that has my mother right after having slashed her wrists in the bathtub being found,” and was hardly sexual in nature.

Nevertheless, the 10-person school board voted unanimously on January 10 to ban the book, which had been on the district’s eighth-grade curriculum. The McMinn County Board of Education cited the book’s “unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide,” in a statement explaining the decision.

“We 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,” the board said. “To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion.”

Art Spiegelman's <em>Maus</em>, the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer Prize, has been banned by a Tennessee school district. Photo by Maro Siranosian/AFP via Getty Images.

Art Spiegelman’s Maus, the only graphic novel to have won a Pulitzer Prize, has been banned by a Tennessee school district. Photo by Maro Siranosian/AFP via Getty Images.

Published serially from 1980 to 1991, the comic won the 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the first and only graphic novel to be honored with the award. Spiegelman’s illustrations for the book depict Jews as mice and Nazis as cats.

News of the Maus ban was first reported by a local paper, the Tennessee Holler. (The story is currently offline, but can be accessed here.) The news was picked up by major outlets on January 27, which is ironically International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marking the 77th anniversary of Allied forces freeing prisoners from Auschwitz.

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” Lee Parkison, the county’s director of schools, said in the 19-page meeting minutes, which extensively debate the possibility of redacting eight instances of swear words such “damn,” before the vote was taken to ban the book outright.

The decision has proved controversial.

Art Spiegelman's <em>Maus</em>. Courtesy of Pantheon Books.

Art Spiegelman’s Maus. Courtesy of Pantheon Books.

“There’s only one kind of people who would vote to ban Maus, whatever they are calling themselves these days,” graphic novelist Neil Gaiman wrote on Twitter.

“It’s depressing to see this happen anywhere in the country, and when it comes to censoring an easy way to reach children and teach them about the Holocaust, it’s particularly disturbing,” Representative Steve Cohen, a Democrat who is the first Jewish person to represent Tennessee in Congress, told the New York Times.

Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors,” the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C., wrote on Twitter. “Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.”

Schools across the nation have been more closely monitoring what students are learning as a growing conservative movement attempts to ban the teaching of critical race theory. Tennessee is one of 12 states that have passed new legislation that restrict lessons that contain themes of race and gender, on the grounds that these are “divisive concepts” that might make some students feel guilty.

This isn’t the first time that Maus has run afoul of the censors. Russia has stopped its sale due to the swastika on its cover, and various Polish groups have protested the book because of its depiction of Poles as pigs.

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