Book Review: Maus by Art Spiegelman

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I read on PBS that Art Spiegelman will receive an honorary National Book Award for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters on November 16. Spiegelman is of the creator of the Pulitzer Prize-winning book “Maus” in 1992.

Maus is now a banned book in select schools. From the papers: “A Tennessee school board has voted to remove the Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel “Maus” from an eighth grade language arts curriculum due to concerns about profanity and an image of female nudity in its depiction of Polish Jews who survived the Holocaust.”

For international readers, in eight grade children are roughly 13 to 14 years old. For more information about the placement of eight grade in school systems and children’s ages, click here.

I am only going to address the two reasons given above for banning this brilliant work.

Does Spiegelman curse in the book? Yes, but very few times. I have seen worse and hear worse out the mouths of middle school aged children. Not just cursing each other but also how they refer to family members.

Cursing does not stand out in this book. What does are the raw emotions in which the author sketches the Holocaust. You cannot make the Holocaust less horrific, less graphic, or bone-chilling. Sugar-coating the Holocaust does not do justice to the many Jewish people who were brutally murdered.

Now let’s cover the female nudity. Spiegelman’s father finds his wife Anya nude in the bathtub. She had killed herself. In only two images in the entire book, do we see Anya dead. In one image, we see the top of her head, her breasts, and an upper arm dangling over the tub. In the other, we see part of her stomach, knees, and right toes sticking out from the bath water. Neither drawings show her private parts. There is far more more nudity in games, on TV, and in the movies. Here, see for yourself.

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As for the violence, as every quality author does, Spiegelman does not focus on violent details. His focus is on the emotions of the people who witness it and try to escape it. Do we see hangings, prisoners, and children being killed? Yes, because that’s what the Nazis did.

People who claim the book is all violence clearly have not spent any time looking at the drawings. We see dancing, tenderness, and very familiar family scenes. Just look at page 75. The adults at the table discuss coupons and the black market while one of the children at the table gets into trouble.

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Reading about the Holocaust is always a gut-wrenching journey. Many in our own family never came back from Auschwitz. But not reading about the Holocaust is not a choice.

Clearly, this isn’t a book for elementary school children. However, at middle school they cover many wars, have seen violence on TV or in games, and are used to a curse word or two.

Instead of banning Maus, a simple label on the book cover in the school library would have been sufficient to alert younger readers of the graphic content.

Highly recommended reading!