The Reason The Complete Maus Became A Banned Book

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The banning of books has been a part of American history since its colonization. National Geographic reports that it occurred as early as 1650, with William Pynchon's religious pamphlet being outlawed in the Massachusetts Bay colony.

In the 19th century, censorship was prominent among anti-slavery works, with Harriet Beecher Stowe's 1851 novel "Uncle Tom's Cabin" being an example of banned material.

Influential court cases of the 20th century saw changes in what kind of content was protected under the First Amendment, with restrictions lifting against works that were previously deemed obscene or pornographic (per LitHub).

However, this development seemed only to move the pressure of the censorship battle from bookstores and mail rooms to schools and libraries when Ronald Regan was elected president. While celebrities like LeVar Burns have spoken publicly about book banning, and many campaigns and organizations have since developed to combat this practice in classrooms and libraries, this form of censorship continues to be a modern-day issue.

The BBC reports that the rise of modern book bannings is partly due to an increase in remote learning policies that have given parents a closer look at what materials their children are studying. Recently, conservative nominees have been running on book-banning campaigns, stoking the divisive political issue.

Meanwhile, books from minority groups have been the most affected by these bans, with Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus" being a prime example.

A school board in Tennessee banned Maus

If you're unfamiliar, "Maus" is a two-part graphic novel by Art Spiegelman that depicts the author's tumultuous relationship with his father, interwoven with his father's experiences as a Polish Jew during the Holocaust (via Barnes & Noble). Released fully as "The Complete Maus," the nonfiction work won a Pulitzer Prize in 1992 and continues to be the first and only graphic novel to do so, per The Tower.

Marked as a book for children 12 and older on BookTrust, the work depicts Jews as mice and Nazis as cats, hence the German title of the novel "Maus" (via Amazon). While the novel's content is dark because it depicts a genocidal historical event, it's arguably written and visualized in a digestible way for middle-schoolers, allowing them to learn about and sympathize with a first-person account of the Holocaust.

Despite the merit of the work, a Tennessee school district voted to ban "Maus" in January of 2022, citing inappropriate language, violence, and the presence of a nude female mouse as their reasoning (via PBS).

During the McMinn County school board meeting, one member said, "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."

Even though the book accurately depicts a momentous historic event, the school board found it inappropriate for its middle school curriculum.

Book banning negatively affects students

The banning of "The Complete Maus" is in no way an isolated incident, and even popular books like the Harry Potter series have been banned in some schools. As mentioned, there has been a rise in challenges against certain books in libraries and schools across America. The American Library Association reports a four-time increase in book challenges from 2020 to 2021, mentioning that there are usually no more than 500 challenges per year (via NPR).

Compared to PEN America's report that there have been 2,532 instances of individual book banning from July 2021 to June 2022, affecting 1,648 individual titles, it is evident that literary censorship is on the rise. The targeted works largely contain LGBTQIA+ topics or feature notable characters of color, and a significant amount contain sexual content or explore issues of race.

As noted by George Mason University, while book banning may satisfy a handful of parents who don't want their children reading specific content, it also takes away the access other students have to a breadth of topics and perspectives. In this way, experts say that book bannings negatively affect students by infringing on their reading rights and allowing for a significant gap in knowledge.

Because of this, the censorship of books in libraries and classrooms continues to be a significant issue, and it doesn't seem to be going away anytime soon. Many important texts like Art Spiegelman's "Maus" are likely to be impacted.