A Missouri school board is preparing to vote next week on whether to ban Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust graphic memoir “Maus” — even though no parent in the district has challenged it.
Spiegelman himself is among those exhorting the board of Nixa Public Schools, a district of about 6,000 students in Christian County just south of the state capital of Springfield, not to remove his book and several others.
“We haven’t learned much from the past, but there’s some things you should be able to figure out,” Spiegelman said in an interview with the literary free-speech advocacy group PEN America published as part of a campaign directed at the Nixa school board. “Book burning leads to people burning. So it’s something that needs to be fought against.”
Other books facing the ban
Nixa is at least the third district in Missouri to seriously question whether current state laws allow it to stock “Maus” in schools. Its board will meet Tuesday to determine the fate of “Maus,” along with six other books including an illustrated adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s “The Handmaid’s Tale,” which portrays a dystopian society in which the United States has been placed under a fundamentalist theocratic rule.
Spiegelman’s book was an early, visible casualty of the nationwide conservative-led movement to remove or restrict books from school libraries for perceived inappropriate content when a Tennessee district voted to remove “Maus” from its middle school curriculum last year. There, school board members cited profanity in the book and a drawing of a naked mouse, which represented the author’s mother after she died by suicide.
Books with LGBTQ content and books about race have been the primary targets of the movement, with graphic novels in particular facing frequent challenges. Over the past year, several other Jewish books have been caught up in purges across multiple states, including an illustrated adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary, a novel about the Holocaust by Jodi Picoult, and a children’s picture book about a Jewish family with two dads.
Unlike in many of these cases, no parent in Nixa challenged the appropriateness of “Maus” or several of the other books facing removal. Instead, the district is concerned that the book could risk violating a state law that establishes a criminal penalty and possible jail time for educators found to have provided children with access to “explicit sexual material.”
“Maus is pending review by the school district due to a recently passed Missouri state law making it a crime to provide materials of visual depiction of sexual act or genitalia to students. Any material that could potentially violate the law are being presented to the board,” Zac Rantz, a district spokesperson, said in a statement to the Jewish Telegraphic Agency.
Is the ban antisemitic?
Rantz emphasized that “Maus” was not being targeted because of its subject matter.
“These actions should not be viewed as an attempt to limit students’ access to information about the Holocaust or be viewed as antisemitic,” he said in the statement. “The district does not tolerate hate speech of any kind and has the teaching of the Holocaust as a part of various classes. The material is being reviewed solely on the basis of the new state law in order to help protect the staff from legal action and place the decision on the board of education.”
Nixa school board president Josh Roberts told the Washington Post the book was “potentially violative” of laws and policies but did not provide further detail. Roberts did not return a JTA request for comment.
Some other Missouri school districts have interpreted the law broadly to mean that comic books and graphic novels, in particular, could expose staff to legal liability. One district near St. Louis ordered staff to temporarily pull not only “Maus,” but also hundreds of other illustrated books, including several Holocaust history books for young readers and art history books featuring Jewish artists.
An email the Nixa school district sent to staff after the law passed instructs its staff to have all materials in their classrooms approved by the district.
“The law defines sexual material as a visual depiction of a sexual act or genitalia,” the email said in part. “There are exceptions for works of art that have serious artistic significance, or works of anthropological significance, or materials used in science courses like biology or anatomy.”
At the time of the Tennessee district’s initial removal of “Maus,” Spiegelman spoke to a local Jewish federation about the controversy, saying it was “about controlling.” He has since appeared on CBS and in other media outlets as a leading voice for authors opposing restrictions on their books in schools.
Now the Pulitzer Prize-winning comics artist is partnering with PEN America to decry attempts to remove the book. PEN has also launched a petition in an effort to convince the Nixa board not to remove the book.
Attacks on “Maus” and other books are “a real warning sign of a country that’s yearning for a return of authoritarianism,” Spiegelman told the Washington Post. Reflecting on the wide array of books that have faced bans, he said, channeling the view of the bans’ proponents, “It’s one more book — just throw it on the bonfire.”
At the Nixa board meeting, the seven-member board will vote individually on each book brought before them. Its vote for “Maus” will not consider questions of appropriateness, only whether the book could conceivably be found in violation of state law.