What banning a book from a school’s curriculum can mean

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Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial and Museum.

“Maus” is a nonfiction graphic novel depicting the author, Art Spiegelman, interviewing his father about his experience during the Holocaust. Jews were portrayed as mice and Nazis as cats. Though the book was published in 1980, recently the McMinn County Board of Education in Tennessee banned the teaching of “Maus” in their school curriculum. UConn professors Susan Herbst, Cora Lynn Deibler and University of Tennessee Holocaust Professor Danie Magilow discussed what it means for schools to ban books like “Maus.” 

“It’s important that educators select teaching materials that don’t sugarcoat traumatic history or otherwise try to make it more palatable,” Magilow said. “The Holocaust has to be taught in all of its ugliness, not a feel-good story. Attempts to make it more palatable are incompatible with the narrative that schools teach children how to think critically and understand that the Holocaust was perpetrated by real people against other real people.” 

According to Magilow, the McMinn school board argued that profanity, depiction of suicide and nudity were reasons why the “Maus” should not be taught in schools. Magilow added that there is often a “pajamafication” of books and movies where they tend to focus on stories of rescue, heroism and survival when historically those cases were rare. “The Boy in the Striped Pajamas,” “The Devil’s Arithmetic” and “The Book Thief” were some movies that didn’t show the whole picture of the Holocaust. Historically, children who were brought to concentration camps were immediately taken to gas chambers, according to Magilow.  

“Using animals as metaphors, this is something that artists do here and there, it allows us to relate to the mice or even imagine ourselves in the story even if this is not our family’s history,” Lynn Deibler said. ” Deibler cited Scott McCloud’s “Understanding Comics” as a book that explains this concept of inserting ourselves into a character well. 

Lynn Deibler explains the great influence graphic novels have in society. Besides “Maus,” other books like “This One Summer” were challenged for sexual content. “Blankets” was challenged for pornographic content. “Persepolis,” was another graphic novel that was criticized for images challenging religion, images depicting violence and gambling. Parents who often argue for the ban of certain books in schools fear what children might be able to find out, Lynn Deibler said.  

“The books have always been there and challenged; that’s not new but what’s different now is that social media guarantees that this happens faster and wider because the increase is inevitable,” Lynn Deibler said. “If you act on something one day it can be online and you can do something in Tennessee and it can cause another action in Texas, another action in Washington state, another action in Illinois the very next day. So my advice to you is to remember books that are removed from a curriculum are not removed from the world.” 

Herbst adds that political division can change the way how books like “Maus” are taught. In the past, political elites were the dominating polarized group in the U.S. but it has changed with the rise of former president Donald Trump and confusing media. Furthermore, political elites are making Americans choose aside, according to Herbst. 

“So taking a little bit further we no longer have local or community identities because our allegiances and our sense of self have become so nationalized we attach to national partisan brands more than our neighbors. Whether it’s critical race theory or Maus, this nationalization of everything will likely continue; it’s very dangerous.” 

Panelists state that making use of your network, listening to others and using the tools around your own community to amplify the Holocaust history are ways to support Holocaust history. Magilow adds that it is remarkable that a graphic novel like “Maus” was created in the 1980s but can still be seen as a non-traditional way for people to learn about the Holocaust today.  

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