Unless you have been living under a rock or live outside the U.S., you are likely aware that in the last year instances of book banning have greatly increased. Most recently, a Tennessee school board decided to ban the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel, Maus. I have been intending to read this book for about a decade and decided that now was as good of time as any to dive in. I am going to discuss more about the rational for banning Maus and my thoughts in my review. (Spoiler alert: I am against banning books.)
Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning Maus tells the story of Vladek Spiegelman, a Jewish survivor of Hitler’s Europe, and his son, a cartoonist coming to terms with his father’s story. Maus approaches the unspeakable through the diminutive. Its form, the cartoon (the Nazis are cats, the Jews mice), shocks us out of any lingering sense of familiarity and succeeds in “drawing us closer to the bleak heart of the Holocaust” (The New York Times).
Maus is a haunting tale within a tale. Vladek’s harrowing story of survival is woven into the author’s account of his tortured relationship with his aging father. Against the backdrop of guilt brought by survival, they stage a normal life of small arguments and unhappy visits. This astonishing retelling of our century’s grisliest news is a story of survival, not only of Vladek but of the children who survive even the survivors. Maus studies the bloody pawprints of history and tracks its meaning for all of us.
Maus combines, for the first time, Maus I: A Survivor’s Tale and Maus II to encompass the complete story of Vladek Spiegelman and his wife, living and surviving in Hitler’s Europe. It tells the story of their lives starting at their courtship in Poland and ending with Vladek’s death in Queens, New York. This encompasses the Holocaust as well as their time in Auschwitz.
Maus is one of the best graphic novels I have read. The story is compelling and well-written. Spiegelman’s choice to tell the story as his father tells him and include their relationship elevates the book and makes it more relatable. Throughout Maus, Spiegelman struggles with his curmudgeonly father while trying to document his father’s story. He also struggles to come to term with what his parents endured and with making money off their story about the Holocaust.
One of the most interesting choices that Spiegelman makes is to depict different “types” of people as different anthropomorphic animals. Jews are portrayed as mice, Germans as cats, Poles as pigs, French as frogs, and Americans as dogs. This somehow makes the dark, heavy subject matter a bit more accessible while underlining the absurdity of categorizing and defining people by their ethnicity or physical traits. The story is without a doubt powerful and emotional.
Where Maus falls a little short for me is the art. I will always be partial to color, but I do not hold that against any book or author/artist. Stylistically, drawing in only black and white set the appropriate tone for the book. My real issue is legibility and the fact that it can be very difficult to distinguish between characters. Between the choice to represent characters as animals and the art style, I often struggled to identify the characters, particularly when they were wearing similar clothing. Otherwise, I liked how things were drawn.
The school board in Tennessee removed Maus from their curriculum because they took issue with “eight curse words” and the image of a nude woman, according to an NPR article. As I read Maus, I kept an eye out for anything that proponents of censorship may take issue with. (I had not yet looked at the specific reasoning for the banning.) I found one “curse word” – “bitch” – and two panels which show the breasts of a dead woman. I have included one of the panels below, which happen to include both “issues”.
If you have seen the art in Maus, you will recognize that this looks quite different. The two panels in which breasts are shown are actually from a previous comic that Spiegelman published about his mother’s suicide and which his father finds in the story. I have seen a lot of commentary (on Twitter) that it is ridiculous to ban that book for the nudity of mice. There are in fact several panels of nude male mice with human genitalia. However, the news articles I have read have specifically stated that it was the breasts they took issue with and the “curse words”.
I am not sure which grade’s curriculum Maus was being used in. Regardless, I think it is fair to say that most kids encounter much worse on the internet in non-cartoon form, and the underling, unstated issue for those advocating for banning is that they are uncomfortable with children being taught the gruesome manner in which Jews died in the Holocaust, the evil of Nazis, and how unjust (and ridiculous) racism is. From looking at the other books that are currently being banned, it is pretty clear that the sector of Americans that advocate censorship want to insulate their children from the realities of history, racism, genocide, and sexuality/gender. It is my personal opinion that schools should prepare children for the reality of the world they live in and have crucial conversations young to encourage acceptance and understanding.
Overall, Maus is an important and impactful graphic novel that makes the subject matter especially accessible to a younger crowd than say Night by Elie Wiesel. I highly recommend it, although the banning has currently led to backorders and scarcity of copies.
November 19, 1996