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Why a school board's ban on 'Maus' may put the book in the hands of more readers

Online sales of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus" are skyrocketing, and multiple bookstores are giving away free copies to students after a Tennessee school district banned it.
Maro Siranosian
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AFP via Getty Images
Online sales of Art Spiegelman's graphic novel "Maus" are skyrocketing, and multiple bookstores are giving away free copies to students after a Tennessee school district banned it.

A Tennessee school district's controversial ban on the Holocaust graphic novel Maus appears to have spurred efforts to get copies into the hands of more readers nationwide.

News of the McMinn County School Board's unanimous vote to remove Maus from its curriculum — and replace it with something else — earlier this month made headlines last week as the world was preparing to mark International Holocaust Remembrance Day.

The Pulitzer Prize-winning book tells the story of author Art Spiegelman's relationship with his father, a Holocaust survivor, by depicting Jews as mice and Nazis as cats. The school board reportedly objected to eight curse words and nude imagery of a woman, used in the depiction of the author's mother's suicide.

Spiegelman told NPR and WBUR's Here and Now that the board's decision is "not good for their children, even if they think it is."

The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, the Anti-Defamation League, the NAACP and other groups have criticized the ban, noting the important role the book — which was originally published in serial form beginning in the 1980s — plays in teaching students about the Holocaust.

Maus now appears to be in even greater demand, and, in some cases, supply, in Tennessee and beyond. Online sales are skyrocketing, and multiple bookstores are giving away free copies to students.

Spiegelman told CNBC that he was heartened by the response, noting it's not the first of its kind.

"The schoolboard could've checked with their book-banning predecessor, [Russian President] Vladimir Putin," he wrote. "He made the Russian edition of Maus illegal in 2015 (also with good intentions — banning swastikas) and the small publisher sold out immediately and has had to reprint repeatedly."

Backlash to the ban has spurred book sales and donations

As criticism of the ban spread across the internet, it appears that many readers rushed to order copies for themselves.

The Complete Maus had been the No. 1 bestseller on Amazon's online bookstore on Monday morning, moving up from the seventh spot on Friday. The top three bestsellers in the "Literary Graphic Novels" section are The Complete Maus, Maus I and Maus II.

Other booksellers are taking steps to get the book and its important message into the hands of more readers.

Ryan Higgins, the owner of a California comic book shop, offered via Twitter to donate up to 100 copies of The Complete Maus to families in the McMinn County area. Illustrator Mitch Gerads and screenwriter Gary Whitta have made similar offers.

Fairytales Bookstore and More in Nashville is partnering with school librarians to give away free copies of Maus to local students, and patrons are encouraged to donate to the cause at a discounted price.

Nirvana Comics in Knoxville announced last week that it had started a program to loan or donate a copy of the book to any student who requests it and, within a day, had received donations from all over the world.

It later started an online fundraising page to support the purchase of copies for students locally and nationwide, and has nearly quadrupled its financial goal with more than $79,000 raised as of Monday morning. Organizers said all extra funds will go to local and state organizations to help support untold stories.

"We thought this would be a local support to help a magnificent piece of literature stay in the hands of students in the McMinn county," they wrote on Saturday. "But ... this has become a global priority!"

Rich Davis, who owns Nirvana Comics and has led the campaign, told the Jewish Telegraphic Agency that because the county is only home to about 50,000 people, the outpouring of support could potentially make it possible "to donate a copy of 'Maus' to every kid in McMinn County."

Educators and community institutions are also taking action

Others are making an effort to help the community grapple with the lessons of Maus and what its removal from the curriculum represents.

Scott Denham, a Holocaust and German studies professor at North Carolina's Davidson College, is offering a free online course for McMinn County eighth-graders and high school students who are interested in reading the Maus books.

"I have taught Spiegelman's books many times in my courses on the Holocaust over many years," he wrote on a website created for the course.

Denham referred to the course as "a work in progress" that will only be open to McMinn County students who apply. It will involve asynchronous tools like a discussion blog and video mini-lectures, as well as live spaces like Zoom meetings.

Denham expects the primary texts to be Maus I and Maus II but says it might also include Metamaus if there is availability at the county's E.G. Fisher Public Library, which "has begun receiving donated copies of the books thanks to many generous people."

Author Nancy Levine posted a note on Twitter that she said was from the public library, saying it had received many offers to purchase Maus and expects to see "several copies arriving in the coming days."

In lieu of additional copies, the library is asking for monetary donations in support of its "collection, educational programming and access to the internet and technology."

There are other community events in the works.

Spiegelman told CNBC that his lecture agent is trying to coordinate a public Zoom event for the McMinn County area, in which he will "talk and take questions about Maus with local citizens (hopefully teachers, students, clergy, etc.) in the next couple weeks."

In the meantime, St. Paul's Episcopal Church in McMinn County is planning to hold a discussion event of its own on Thursday.

Organizers told NBC affiliate WIBR that many churches may see the events the book depicts as "not their concern," despite the prevalence of antisemitism in and beyond Tennessee.

"We are committed to standing against hatred and harm," they said. "Together, let's dive into this story so that we might better live out that call in our time and community."


This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.

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