Art Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize–winning graphic novel Maus details the experiences of Spiegelman’s father during the Holocaust, with Jewish characters depicted as mice and Nazis as cats. It has been the subject of multiple book challenges and bans since its publication in 1991—most recently in January when the board of McMinn County (Tenn.) School District removed the title from its 8th-grade curriculum for depictions of nudity and adult language.
Spiegelman spoke with American Libraries about book banning, how comic books are used as teaching tools, and the importance of libraries in his life.
The recent ban of Maus in Tennessee isn’t its first challenge. What did you think when you heard the news? Well, this was the most prominent. [And] this was much more, in some ways, ideologically driven, although not in the obvious way. It seems it has a lot to do with the fact that people who join school boards like to have authority, and it’s because they have a tendency toward authoritarianism. It has more to do with buying into this current right-wing wave of wanting to control all literature that isn’t biblically or socially sanctioned in certain pockets of the country.
Are these challenges—of Maus and other books—part of a larger culture war? Absolutely. I do feel like I’ve become cannon fodder in a culture war, because I’m not the logical target right now. The real challenges have to do with [books about] people who aren’t gender normative and race books that indicate that everything isn’t a Garden of Eden for Blacks in America. That kind of book gets challenged more, so I had to figure out why this was happening. Maus is not especially lurid. What I think made it an issue is that the idea of challenging one’s parents is threatening to an authoritarian, and there’s a lot of that going on in my book.
You have said that you didn’t intend for Maus to be used as a teaching tool, but it has become one. What are your thoughts on comic books in the classroom? It depends on the book. On one hand, I’m a First Amendment fundamentalist, so I have that in common with the McMinn County School Board—my fundamentalism. Even if they wanted to teach The Turner Diaries or Mein Kampf, I would much rather a kid read them with teachers and a curriculum that tries to put the books in context. A kid can absorb anything if framed properly. I wouldn’t ban any of these books, but I would want them taught in context when necessary. The Holocaust is disturbing material and enormous for many reasons. It can happen again. We’re seeing it happen right now in Ukraine. It’s not just in the realm of fantasy.
What role have libraries had in your life, both as a child and now? Libraries were my salvation as a kid. I would go religiously—which isn’t an adjective I use for most of my other encounters with the world. I’d look forward to going there, taking a stack of books, bringing them back. Very soon the librarian at the small library between my home and school got used to me and let me wander the adult sections, which is how I discovered Kafka before he would have otherwise entered my life.
I have one functioning eye, which made me terrible at baseball when I was a kid. After school I would flee immediately to the library so I wouldn’t be put on the team where they would scream at me for not being able to hit a ball or catch it. I read a lot and found things at random by pulling books off shelves, taking them home, seeing which ones worked for me. It was just a matter of reading without any filter.