'It's about control': Author of 'Maus' pushes back after McMinn County bans book on Holocaust

Art Spiegelman / Photo by Nadja Spiegelman

Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer-prize winning author of "Maus: A Survivor's Tale," said books about difficult topics need to be contextualized, not banned, and people should not seek a fuzzier narrative of the Holocaust when the fact is it was a genocide.

In his graphic novel, Spiegelman tells the story of the Holocaust, depicting Nazis as cats and Jews as mice. The book grapples with the mass murder of Jews in Europe, as well as the ways in which the members of Spiegelman's family who survived the Holocaust dealt with the atrocity.

"It's certainly about Jews, but it's not just about Jews," Spiegelman said. "This is about othering and what's going on now is about controlling - controlling what kids can look at, what kids can read, what kids can see in a way that makes them less able to think, not more. And it takes the form of the criticisms from this board."

The author's pushback against banning books comes after the McMinn County Board of Education voted unanimously in January to remove Spiegelman's award-winning graphic novel from its curriculum, citing language and nudity in the book.

The discussion with Spiegelman was hosted by a group of Chattanooga-area and Tennessee organizations, including the Jewish Federation of Greater Chattanooga, B'nai Zion Congregation, Mizpah Congregation, Ascension Lutheran Church and the Tennessee Holler.

(READ MORE: McMinn County school board bans Pulitzer Prize-winning book on Holocaust)

Whitney Kimball Coe and Jacque Nodell moderated the discussion, with submitted questions and more than 10,000 people viewing the Monday evening webinar.

Spiegelman said he was apprehensive about children reading his work when it was first published but said he learned young people are able to understand difficult topics, and the graphic novel provides an engaging medium.

"I learned that it was OK for kids to approach this having met the kids that read it, and still do," he said. "I was interested to learn until last year, until very recently, McMinn County also thought this was possible on an eighth-grade reading level. I'm distressed to find that's changed in the midst of strong political headwinds that are burning books, literally, in Nashville just a few days ago, that are trying to readjust our curricula to terrify librarians and book readers and teachers."

Spiegelman described teachers who continue to teach difficult topics and difficult books in the face of such pressure as "noble."

Parents are using the guise of "protection" to ban books when they should be exercising empathy and intelligence, Spiegelman said. He was hurt to hear a board member describe his mother, and her struggles after the Holocaust, as simply a "naked woman."

The author also said people focusing on the language in "Maus," much of which is often said on TV, is like seeing a loved one being strangled by an evil killer and only remarking about the dirt in the killer's fingernails.

"[The Holocaust] is about oppression and turning people into less than people," Spiegelman said. "And everything about the book is about turning people three-dimensional with my two-dimensional pictures."

(READ MORE: Chattanooga mother raises concerns with Bible class taught in public school)

Creating "Maus" was a way to process the grief and pain present in his family, Spiegelman said. The shadow of the Holocaust and the continued presence of antisemitism left his family on edge, he said, describing how his father told him to always have his bags packed, to be ready to move at any moment.

In a statement in January, the McMinn County Board of Education said the school system has an obligation to teach the Holocaust and ensure it never happens again.

"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. To the contrary, we have asked our administrators to find other works that accomplish the same educational goals in a more age-appropriate fashion," the statement said.

Contact Wyatt Massey at wmassey@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6249. Follow him on Twitter @news4mass.