OPINION: Tennessee School Board Bans Maus


Credit: The Guardian, Mario Anzuoni/Reuters

Ally Richardson

On January 10, the Pulitzer Prize-winning book Maus by Art Spiegelman was banned by the McMinn County School Board in Tennessee in a unanimous vote due to excessive language and nudity. Since that vote, purchases of Maus have skyrocketed, as many people are clamoring to see the controversial book that warranted a ban.


Maus consists of two books, in which a series of animals portray different ethnicities, with Jews as mice, Germans/Nazis as Cats, and Poles as pigs. The first book follows the author’s father Vladek Spiegelman and his experiences before and during the Holocaust from the mid-30s to 1944. The second book picks up from there and follows Vladek’s experiences in Auschwitz to liberation and beyond. Throughout both books, the story bounces between the past and present with the present being Art’s relationship with his dad, his experiences interviewing him, and his process of writing Maus. The past involves Vladek’s, and sometimes his wife Anja’s, experiences during the Holocaust. The narration in the past scenes is done by Vladek and the present by Art. 

Issues the School Board Found With the Book

During the board meeting held by the McMinn County Board of Education, there were three English teachers, and the board’s attorney, who were brought before the board to explain Maus. It’s mentioned multiple times in the book that Art’s mother committed suicide, one such panel includes his father discovering his mother’s dead body in the bathtub. This panel shows his mother’s corpse in the bathtub; the only nudity visible is her bare breasts. The board took extreme offense to this. One particular board member, Mike Cochran, who was the only one on the board to have clearly stated that he read the book, addressed the importance of the book, but still expressed disapproval over the panel showing Art’s mother’s body. In addition to the suicide panel, there are eight swear words to which the board was opposed. Despite being already redacted by putting a star on the first letter of each offensive word, as much as the teachers legally could change without copyright infringement, a reader can still tell what swear words are there. The board did not like this and saw it as encouraging children to swear despite that being against school rules. One board member, Tony Allman, referenced Art Spiegelman’s former background as an artist for Playboy as a way to discredit him writing anything fit for children. 

Issues with the School Board

We have reached the level of banning books on important topics in the name of protecting others. Another group that banned books in the name of protecting the general public were the Nazis. Ironically, this school board would not only ban a book, but ban one about the Holocaust. As for the panel portraying the suicide of Art’s mother, I have read this book several times and never noticed it. I had to do an extensive search online before I could find the nudity that the board referred to. While board member Mike Cochran did read the book, he claimed that he considered the piece as a whole and still found the “inappropriate panel” to be the antithesis of the message and morals of the book. To condemn the book by focusing on one “inappropriate panel” and some swear words, is completely unwarranted and minuscule when you consider the overall story of the book and the lessons that can be learned from it. Even this point neglects the fact that the remainder of the board members had only read reviews and excerpts from the book and still considered themselves to be the best party to give judgment on Maus. You can’t appreciate the book as a whole and understand its importance when you’ve been introduced to it in a negative light, and have only been given the synopsis. The United States Holocaust Memorial Museum recommends starting teaching about the Holocaust in sixth grade and older; this book serves as the perfect tool to do so as it’s a graphic novel, which is popular with the younger demographic.

The Necessity and Importance of Maus

Mala, Art’s stepmother, has said in regards to hid comic, “It’s an important book. People who don’t usually read such stories will be interested” (Spiegelman, Maus I 133). Said best by Mala in Maus, the comic format of Maus is accessible and engaging, particularly with children and teenagers. Maus shows the raw truth of the Holocaust without glorifying it, which makes people uncomfortable. Even the end of the second book is inconclusive and unhappy. Children and adults alike need to learn about these stories so that they can be grateful for what they have. Many of the victims in the Holocaust were the age of these eighth-graders, or younger. The only thing separating them is luck; they are lucky to not have been a Jew in Poland during the 1940s’; they are lucky to have been born in a time where equality amongst everyone is seen as extremely important; they are lucky to even be born in this country where there are fail-safes to prevent another Hitler from taking over. McMinn County English teacher Steven Brady addressed the school board, “What students see and hear where they live, may not be appropriate in some settings and we have a chance with every lesson to change what our students see is okay. We get a chance to kind of influence their ethics, their morals, their upbringing.” The only way to prevent a new generation of those who act with bigotry and reckless hate is to teach them empathy and understanding, both are themes that are essential throughout Maus.

If nothing else, this book should serve as a reminder and lesson of the failings of humanity to protect one another. In addition, it is a tool to teach children to have compassion toward the experiences of their peers and others around them.