(Reuters) – A school board in Tennessee has voted to remove the Holocaust-themed graphic novel “Maus” from its eighth-grade language arts curriculum, citing profanity and nudity contained in the Pulitzer Prize-winning work by cartoonist Art Spiegelman.
The 10-0 vote by the McMinn County Board of Education in Athens, Tennessee, located about 150 miles (240 km) southeast of Nashville, came on Jan. 10 but gained wide U.S. media attention on Thursday, ironically coinciding with International Holocaust Remembrance Day.
The board vote overrode a state-level curriculum review that had approved the teaching of “Maus,” based on the real-life Holocaust experiences of Spiegelman’s parents in Poland, with Jewish characters depicted as mice and their Nazi persecutors as cats.
The title of the two-volume publication, which became the first graphic novel to be awarded a Pulitzer, in 1992, is the German word for mouse.
In a CNN interview on Thursday, the author described his initial reaction to the ban as “total bafflement” and called the school board’s action “daffily myopic.”
Spiegelman, 73, said the board appeared from transcripts of its meeting to have “totally focused on some bad words that are in the book.”
The board, in a statement posted on its website on Thursday, said the novel was removed “because of its unnecessary use of profanity and nudity and its depiction of violence and suicide,” which the panel found 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,” the board said. It added that administrators would look for other works that are suitable in a “more age-appropriate fashion.”
The school board president could not be reached by Reuters for further comment.
The ban comes as Republican politicians around the country have seized on the teaching of “critical race theory” – putting the history of institutionalized racism into a larger instructional context – as anathema to public education, while calling for greater parental control in schools.
BREATH OF FASCISM
Spiegelman said the McMinn board meeting transcript gave no “hint” of anti-Semitic motivations. But he said the ban “has the breath of autocracy and fascism about it,” and suggested board members were “so afraid of what’s implied and having to defend the decision to teach ‘Maus.'”
Spiegelman, who declined to comment further to Reuters, said the only nudity in the book is a single, small illustration depicting his mother as she was found after taking her own life by “having slashed her wrists in the bathtub” about two decades after the war. “It’s a tiny image,” he said.
According to the Jan. 10 minutes, published online by the Washington Post, some school board members said that in addition to vulgarity, they were troubled with references to premarital sex, suicide and violence generally.
“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 said.
Allman also pointed to Spiegelman’s past cartoon work for Playboy magazine.
Board member John Cochran said he enjoyed parts of the book but objected to a passage in which the father talks to his son about losing his virginity.
“It wasn’t explicit but it was in there. You see the naked pictures, you see the razor, the blade where the mom is cutting herself. You see her laying in a pool of her own blood,” Cochran said.
A former history teacher who spoke at the meeting, Julie Goodin, sought to defend the graphic novel, saying in the transcript, “There is nothing pretty about the Holocaust, and for me this was a great way to depict a horrific time in history.”
Public schools director Lee Parkison, also present, suggested merely redacting “the eight curse words” and the offending image of the mother, but some board members raised copyright concerns with that approach. The board ultimately voted unanimously to exclude the novel.
Reacting to the news, the U.S. Holocaust Museum hailed “Maus” on Twitter for playing “a vital role” Holocaust education through “sharing detailed and personal experiences of victims and survivors.”
(Reporting by Steve Gorman in Los Angeles; Additional reporting by Kanishka Singh in Bengaluru; Editing by Leslie Adler)