Tennessee school board bans acclaimed Holocaust graphic novel Maus, author responds

The McMinn County school board in Tennessee pulled Maus, the Pulitzer Prize-winning nonfiction graphic novel about the Holocaust, from its classrooms. Seemingly, the book was removed because of vulgarity, but the decision reflects a larger trend of school boards throughout the nation banning books raising sensitive issues or reviewing difficult historical events. 

Key Players

The McMinn County Board of Education, made up of 10 members, voted unanimously to ban the novel.

Author Art Spiegelman won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for Maus, the only graphic novel ever to win a Pulitzer. Also a work of nonfiction, it depicts the story of his father’s experience in the Holocaust with Jews illustrated as mice and Nazis as cats.

Further Details

Largely rural and about 65 miles southwest of Knoxville, McMinn County leans very conservative

On Jan 10, 2022, the McMinn County school board debated teachers about whether Maus was appropriate for students and if it was an irreplaceable part of the curriculum, as it was a central source for an eighth-grade curriculum module about the Holocaust. 

After hearing from teachers who defended Maus, board members voted to table the discussion. For the rest of the meeting, they spoke among themselves, but later unanimously voted to pull the book from the curriculum altogether, citing eight curse words and an illustration of a nude woman, which appears in a sequence portraying when the author’s mother died by suicide.

Despite noting that the Holocaust was cruel, board member Tony Allman was adamant about removing the book. “It shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids,” he said. “Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy.” 

Board member Jonathan Pierce took a similar stance.  “My objection, and I apologize to everyone sitting here, is that my standards matter — and I am probably the biggest sinner and crudest person in this room,” said Pierce. “Can I lay that in front of a child and say read it, or this is part of your reading assignment?”

“I went to school here 13 years,” said board member Mike Cochran. “I learned math, English, reading, and history. I never had a book with a naked picture in it, never had one with foul language … this idea that we have to have this kind of material in the class in order to teach history, I don’t buy it.”


Spiegelman responds publicly

On Jan. 27, 2022, appearing on CNN, Spiegelman said he doubted antisemitism motivated the book’s ban, but was puzzled that the meeting notes focused on on eight curse words and partial nudity. 

“I think they’re so myopic in their focus and they’re so afraid of what’s implied in having to defend the decision to teach Maus as part of the curriculum that it led to this kind of daffily myopic response,” said Spiegelman. “And daffiness would be easy. The problem of course is that it has the breath of autocracy and fascism.” 

A wave of book bans and curricular censorship

The decision to pull Maus is not an isolated incident. Other school boards around the country have been banning books that mention or discuss sex, especially those that affirm LGBTQ identities. 

Throughout the country, parents and lawmakers have spoken out against Gender Queer, a memoir by Maia Kobabe about growing up as a nonbinary person. Earlier in the year, at a Kansas school board meeting, parents and community members debated pulling All Boys Aren’t Blue, a memoir by George M. Johnson about growing up as a gay Black person. 

Additionally, books with themes of slavery, Native American genocide, and other past atrocities in the United States have made the lists of objectionable books. In Texas, State Rep. Matt Krause (R) of the 93rd District, which encompasses areas north and east of Fort Worth, published a list of 850 books he is openly attempting to ban. And during the 2021 gubernatorial race in Virginia, Gov. Glenn Youngkin (R) campaigned on removing certain books from school, including Beloved by Toni Morrison, the story of a formerly enslaved woman in the aftermath of the Civil War, ABC News reported.