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Pulitzer-winning graphic novel about Holocaust banned by East Tennessee school district

In an interview, creator Art Spiegelman told CNBC he was “baffled” by the school board’s decision and called the action “Orwellian.”
Credit: Chris Salvemini

ATHENS, Tenn. — A Tennessee school district has voted to ban a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust due to “inappropriate language" and an illustration of a nude woman, according to minutes from a board meeting.

The McMinn County School Board decided Jan. 10 to remove Maus from its curriculum, news outlets reported.

Art Spiegelman won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for the work that tells the story of his Jewish parents living in 1940s Poland and depicts him interviewing his father about his experiences as a Holocaust survivor.

In an interview, Spiegelman told CNBC he was “baffled” by the school board’s decision and called the action “Orwellian.”

“It’s leaving me with my jaw open, like, ‘What?’” he said.

The minutes from the school board meeting indicate objections over some of the language used and at first Director of Schools Lee Parkison suggested redacting it “to get rid of the eight curse words and the picture of the woman that was objected to.”

The nude woman is drawn as a mouse. In the graphic novel, Jews are drawn as mice and the Nazis are drawn as cats.

“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," School Board Member Tony Allman said about the book, which was part of the district's eighth-grade English language arts curriculum.

Credit: Chris Salvemini

Instructional supervisor Julie Goodin, a former history teacher, said she thought the graphic novel was a good way to depict a horrific event.

“It’s hard for this generation, these kids don’t even know 9/11, they were not even born,” Goodin said. “Are the words objectionable? Yes, there is no one that thinks they aren’t. But by taking away the first part, it’s not changing the meaning of what he is trying to portray.”

Randi Weingarten, the president of the American Federation of Teachers, which does not play a role in McMinn County, noted the timing of the news on Twitter. Weingarten, who is Jewish, pointed out that Thursday is International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

“Yes it is uncomfortable to talk about genocide, but it is our history and educating about it helps us not repeat this horror," Weingarten said.

The U.S. Holocaust Museum tweeted that “Maus has played a vital role in educating about the Holocaust through sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors. 

“Teaching about the Holocaust using books like Maus can inspire students to think critically about the past and their own roles and responsibilities today.”

The Tennessee school board emphasized in the minutes that they did not object to teaching about the Holocaust but some were concerned the work was not age-appropriate.

Although they discussed redacting parts of the book, that led to copyright concerns and board members ultimately decided to look for an alternative book about the subject. 

In a statement after the controversy went viral Thursday, the McMinn County Board of Education issued the following statement

"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 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. 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. To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion. The atrocities of the Holocaust were shameful beyond description, and we all have an obligation to ensure that younger generations learn of its horrors to ensure that such an event is never repeated. We simply do not believe that this work is an appropriate text for our students to study."

The book isn't the only one banned recently amid critical race theory controversy.

Credit: AP
FILE - Artist and author Art Spiegelman gets some help with his lunch from Francoise Mouly, of Random House, Inc., during a signing of Spiegelman's new book "In the Shadow of No Towers" at the Book Expo America convention, Saturday, June 5, 2004, in Chicago. A Tennessee school district has voted to ban a Pulitzer Prize winning graphic novel about the Holocaust due to “inappropriate language” and an illustration of a nude woman. That's according to minutes from the McMinn County School Board meeting on Jan. 10, 2022. Board members voted to remove “Maus,” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. (AP Photo/Brian Kersey, File)

Congressman Steve Cohen (D-TN Dist. 9, Memphis), condemned the decision to ban the book.

“The unanimous decision of the McMinn County School Board to ban the graphic novel Maus from its curriculum is another unfortunate and embarrassing example of close-mindedness. It’s also censorship and typical of a trend we’re seeing around the country of right-wing politicians attempting to shield themselves from the painful truths of history. It appears the subject matter of Maus is as concerning as its use of mild profanity and a single instance of nudity.

“We’re a century away from the Scopes Monkey Trial but, for the McMinn County School Board, it appears not much has changed since the neighboring county put the theory of evolution on trial.

“I created the Tennessee Holocaust Commission and served on it as an ex officio member to help schools and other institutions better understand and teach the horrors of the Holocaust.

“Art Spiegelman’s novel opens minds to the history of the Nazi genocide we’re remembering on today’s anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camps in 1945. I look forward to seeing the school board decision reversed.”

RELATED: As world marks Holocaust Remembrance Day, some survivors in Israel struggle

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