On April 6, Katy ISD determined that Maus was appropriate for middle and high school students and would remain in libraries.
On Tuesday, the Houston Chronicle reported that Katy ISD was investigating whether Maus—the Pulitzer Prize–winning two-part graphic novel that tells the story of how author Art Spiegelman’s family survived the Holocaust—was appropriate for the district’s middle and high school libraries. It wasn’t the first time in recent months that educators have considered whether its students should have access to the book. In January, the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee (about halfway between Chattanooga and Knoxville) made headlines for banning the book.
In response to the ban, high school students in Katy organized a book drive to collect and distribute copies of Maus, as well as Toni Morrison’s Beloved and other widely acclaimed works that, after years as part of the canon, have come under fire for themes that school boards have decided are inappropriate. The student group also gathered copies of the ten books that Katy educators have already removed from library shelves for “pervasively vulgar” content. The district also canceled an appearance by Newbery Medal–winning cartoonist Jerry Craft last fall, after parents complained that his book, New Kid—which is about a seventh-grader who transfers to a private school where he’s one of a small number of students of color—taught children critical race theory.
I’ve not read Craft’s book, but I know Maus well. As a comic book–obsessed kid, I found my first copy at a flea market when I was around ten years old. At that point, I didn’t know much about the Holocaust, if anything. I didn’t know what the cover, which featured frightened-looking gray mice huddled under the watchful eye of a cat’s face and a looming swastika, meant. (My initial reaction was to practice drawing the swastika, the same way I drew Superman’s S symbol, before I understood what it represented.) Maus literally illustrated the Holocaust, and it made the true nature of its horrors accessible to me in ways that The Diary of a Young Girl or Number the Stars couldn’t. Before reading Maus, if I had a sense of what Nazis were, it was as abstract villains, the bad guys Indiana Jones fought. Afterward, I understood what the swastika meant in an entirely different way.
In the book, Spiegelman depicts his family and the other European Jews as mice, and the Nazis who oversaw the camps in which his parents were held and enslaved as cats. The book captures the growing sense of dread among Spiegelman’s parents and their friends and neighbors as the Nazis rise to power and target Jews throughout Germany, Poland, and Eastern Europe. As the book goes on and Spiegelman’s parents are sent to Auschwitz, the story becomes increasingly—and appropriately—grim. There are, I suppose, moments that an adult reader might find inappropriate for a child (a few instances of light profanity, and a brief panel of non-sexualized nudity, both of which the Tennessee school board cited in its removal of the book). Other elements of the book—specifically, the violence inflicted upon the Jews as the Nazis begin to implement Hitler’s “Final Solution”—are upsetting but central to understanding the Holocaust. The fact that the characters are cartoon animals helps provide distance and keep the horrors from overwhelming young readers. (It also makes the controversy over the quick appearance of a naked body absurd; the body belongs to a cartoon cat.) None of the hallmarks of media that are inappropriate for children—sensationalized violence, overt sexualization, abusive language—are present in Maus.
Reading Maus for the first time, I wasn’t fully old enough to process what I was reading as the history that people my grandparents’ age lived through, but I was fortunate: my dad, a nonobservant Jew whose father had emigrated from Eastern Europe before Hitler came to power, read the book with me and helped me make sense of what I was reading. I quickly came to understand that the talking animals weren’t funny on purpose. I learned in greater detail what a Jew was, and that despite the fact that I was raised in my mom’s Catholic faith, people who didn’t like Jews would still see one when they saw my face or learned my name. The Holocaust still seemed impossibly distant, but I was able to understand it in the context of my grandparents, who would have been among Spiegelman’s mice had they lived in Hitler’s Europe. Reading the book was an education that helped me make sense of a complicated, frightening history.
The thought that kids in Texas might not have access to Maus hit me on a visceral level when I read about the investigation into the book in Katy. In Tennessee, the school board responded to the backlash to its decision by promising to find “other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion,” but Maus is a singular work, telling the story in the voice of an Auschwitz survivor and with the accessible visual metaphors that Spiegelman’s work as a cartoonist gives it. Maus doesn’t soften the horrors of history or, as Spiegelmen said in response to the Tennessee school board’s decision, offer a “nicer Holocaust”—but it is unique in how it balances those horrors within a frame that readers, especially young ones, can comprehend. That’s why it’s become a seminal piece of American literature.
Instead of considering banning Maus, I’d suggest that school boards concerned about the book consider teaching it. Not every child will have a parent who is willing or able to contextualize Maus the way my dad did for me, but after the decades of scholarship surrounding the work, they also don’t need one. A quick Google search turns up dozens of study materials written for middle and high school students with analyses, questions, and explorations of the book’s themes. If a work as vital and celebrated as Maus might prove upsetting to parents, there’s a better option than banning it. We can educate kids on how to understand the history it teaches, the images and language it uses, and why “never again” begins with ensuring that children learn the horrors of the past so they don’t get repeated.
Watch Texas Country Reporter’s visit to the Dallas Holocaust & Human Rights Musuem.