The Maus Trap

As long as there have been books, there has been controversy about books. There have been six major book-burnings in the US (yes, America) over Harry Potter, because some people believe a little too much in witches, though, personally, if I believed that strongly in witches, I might just not want to anger them.

But logic doesn’t exist in book burnings, or bannings.

In 1948, in Binghamton, New York , people went door to door gathering and burning comic books, to save youth from their moral depravity. It sparked a nationwide comic-book burning spree, including here in Connecticut.

This year’s book fiasco (and this happened on January 10), has been the McMinn County (Tennessee) School Board voting 10-0 to remove the graphic novel Maus from their curriculum, over the use of 8 curse words (the most objectioned being – forgive me if you will, God damn), and the depiction of a naked mouse in a bathtub, with a breast showing. A mouse-breast. 

Maus is not drawn as graphic realism; with its heavy line style, it could be cut and printed in woodblocks and look the same.

Maus, by Art Spiegelman, is the winner of a 1992 Pulitzer Prize, the only graphic novel ever to do so. In it (sometimes found in two volumes, sometimes as one combined), Spielman interviews his father, a Polish Jew, as to what it was like to survive the Concentration Camps – his father spent time in both Auschwitz and Dachau, and his mother in Auschwitz. Nazis are portrayed by cats, Jews by mice, Americans by dogs, French by frogs, British as fish, and Swedes as deer.  

Spiegelman has a lot of anger toward his father that comes out now and then in the story. His father was, understandably, damaged by the war and not necessarily an empathetic father. Spiegelman’s mother couldn’t rid herself of the experience, and committed suicide when he was 20 (the unfortunate mouse in the bathtub). It’s a true story, an honest story, and Spiegelman’s struggle to make sense of it and his place in the narrative is the struggle we all face trying to understand the Nazi rise to power and the unimaginable atrocities they carried out – atrocities so horrific, the experiences threw open the study of epigenetics on the belief that the DNA of survivors’ children had been altered by the experiences of the parents, though some studies are undecided.

Tennessee withdrew the book from the curriculum just three days before Holocaust remembrance day, citing moral issues that included violence and showing dead mouse children, language, and that naked mouse breast in one panel. 

Maus is now the top-selling book in America, thanks to Tennessee’s decision that thirteen year olds learning about the Holocaust in graphic form and seeing mild curse words in print might damage them. Good thing they never saw the photo novel my father, a historian, has of World War II, which is nothing but photographs of the war, including too many horrific images from the various camps, a book which has haunted me since childhood.

The internet, while not reliable for many things, had the best quote: If it was okay for 13 year old Anne Frank to live through it, why is it too disturbing for 13 year old Tennessee children to learn about it? 

There are many reasons some books may be objectionable, outside of really bad prose, and yes, it is not unreasonable that some books should have an age limit – after all, movies and video games do. I would not recommend reading “The Exorcist” to a ten year old, even a literate one. The thing to remember is that not everyone can agree on what or why something should be limited, or worse, banned. Always, always, read the banned book, find out what information someone is trying to suppress, why, and then talk about it. If you still find the material objectionable, that’s fine, but you don’t have the right to control its availability to others.

Decide for yourself. Maus is currently sold out on Amazon, but you can join the wait list for the library’s copy here. Meanwhile, check out these commonly banned books – most of which the rest of America considers classics (1984 by Orwell is the #1 banned book in America).

4 thoughts on “The Maus Trap

  1. A fine reading list, with or without the blessing of being a banned or challenged book. I read The Exorcist in my 20s, and it kept me awake all night. Different kids are ready for different books at different ages. I was reading above my age group for most of school, and I’m sure a lot of what I read went right over my head. Maybe I’ll go reread 1984 and Brave New World one of these days and find out what I missed.

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  2. Very good essay, but removing a book from required reading on a middle school curriculum is not “banning”. Perhaps I got the details of this wrong?

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  3. Pingback: Maus | Camp Chaos Rules

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