Free Speech

When Spiegelman's Maus Was Challenged, Sales Spiked

How school board members lashed out against dirty words


This year the school board in McMinn County, Tennessee, voted unanimously to remove cartoonist Art Spiegelman's Pulitzer Prize–winning memoir Maus from the school curriculum. The book had been assigned in an eighth-grade module covering the Holocaust.

In Maus, Spiegelman retells his parents' experiences as Auschwitz survivors. Subverting the tropes of classic funny animal comics, he draws Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The book's surprising critical and commercial success was the linchpin of comics' rise to serious literary prominence in the past 35 years.

The fact that comics had long been associated with children helps explain why the book was assigned to eighth-graders in the first place. Its disruption of those expectations set off McMinn County's educational bureaucrats. The school board's meeting about Maus started with complaints about "eight curse words" (not specified, but the book's rough language is mostly of the "bitch" and "goddamn" level) and one "graphic image" (again unspecified but likely a very easy-to-miss image of the top half of a naked woman's dead body—the body portrayed as human, not mouse).

Maus had been the "anchor text" for the eighth grade Holocaust curriculum, taught along with supplemental material including survivors' stories and news stories. But one board member believed that middle schoolers should not be exposed to the horrors of the Holocaust. Maus "shows people hanging, it shows them killing kids," he said. "Why does the educational system promote this kind of stuff? It is not wise or healthy." Another board member seemed to misunderstand the very purpose of historical storytelling: "The wording in this book is in direct conflict of some of our policies. If I said on the school bus that I was going to kill you, we would be bringing disciplinary action against that child."

One board member said if an acceptable substitute to anchor that Holocaust module wasn't found, "It would probably mean we would have to move on to another module."

Predictably, the week after the news of the curriculum removal hit, Maus' weekly sales went up about 50 percent.