Tennessee school board bans Pulitzer Prize-winning Holocaust novel ‘Maus’

ATHENS, Tenn. — A school board in eastern Tennessee voted unanimously this month to ban a Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust from being taught in its classrooms, claiming that the book had inappropriate material for students.

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The 10-member McMinn County Board of Education voted on Jan. 10 to ban “Maus,” a 1992 work by Art Spiegelman, from its eighth-grade curriculum, WBIR-TV reported.

According to the minutes of its meeting, the board said the book, which portrays Jewish people as mice and Nazis as cats, contained inappropriate curse words and the depiction of a naked character, The New York Times reported. The graphic novel tells the story of Spiegelman’s Jewish parents, who lived in Poland during the 1940s. It follows them through their internment at the Auschwitz concentration camp, and includes conversations between Spiegelman and his aging father, The Tennessean reported.

The story was first reported by The Tennessee Holler, a local outlet in McMinn County whose motto is “Always yell the truth.”

Eight “curse words” and the nude drawing concerned board members the most, the newspaper reported.

“There is some rough, objectionable language in this book,” Lee Parkison, the director of schools for McMinn County, the Times reported, citing the board’s minutes of the meeting.

“It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids, why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy,” board member Tony Allman added.

“This is disturbing imagery,” Spiegelman, 73, told the Times on Thursday, which is Holocaust Remembrance Day. “But you know what? It’s disturbing history.”

“One of the most important roles of an elected board of education is to reflect the values of the community it serves,” the McMinn County School Board said in a statement that was posted to social media. “The McMinn County Board of Education voted to remove the graphic novel ‘Maus’ from McMinn County Schools because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide. Taken as a whole, the Board felt this work was simply too adult-oriented for use in our schools.”

Alex Sharp, a librarian at Tennessee Wesleyan University in McMinn County, said her profession has been fighting against bans for years.

“What does it mean when you choose to ban this book? Because it has eight swear words?” Sharp told WBIR. “OK, I’m sorry. But children see more than eight swear words in one TikTok video nowadays, it’s just the life we live.”

Spiegelman told the Times he got the impression that the board members were asking, “Why can’t they teach a nicer Holocaust?”

“It’s absurd,” Spiegelman told the Tennessean.

The nude drawing in question depicts the suicide of Art Spiegelman’s mother, he told the newspaper. It includes a “dot for a nipple” and a bathtub filled with blood.

Sharp said her biggest concern with the ban was that students will miss out on dialogue about an important time in world history.

“If you ban a book outright, that cuts off any dialogue that there is to be had about that book. And I think that this is an important story, we have to have this conversation,” Sharp told WBIR. “When we start banning books, we get into really dangerous territory where we are stunting our children, and not allowing them to have exposure to important ideas.”

Nirvana Comics, a Knoxville comic book store, announced Thursday that it will give away free copies of “Maus” to any student who wants one, WBIR reported.

“I’m kind of baffled by this,” Spiegelman told CNBC. “It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’”

Spiegelman called the school board “Orwellian” for its action, the news outlet reported.

One McMinn board member, Rob Shamblin, asked during the meeting what other books would have to be removed if foul language is the criteria, the Times reported.

Classic books on elementary school reading lists, such as “Bridge to Terabithia,” “The Whipping Boy” and “To Kill a Mockingbird,” also include foul language, one school principal told the board.

“That falls under another topic for another day,” board chairperson Sharon Brown said.