Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Spiegelman, A. (1991). The complete maus. New York, NY: Pantheon Books.

296 pp. (illus.)

Winner of The Pulitzer Prize
(yeah, that's all. . . )

Here's what Miss Martha says about THE COMPLETE MAUS . . .

This is Art Spiegelman's biography of his father, Vladek Spiegelman, a survivor of Nazi occupied Poland, the death camp at Auschwitz, and the march back to Germany. This printing of the book includes both MAUS I and MAUS II, which were originally (and are still available as) two separately published works, along with other material that was previously printed in RAW, the comic magazine created by Art Spiegelman. The biography is interspersed with autobiographical material from the author, about his writing process, his relationship with his father, his marriage, and more. The entire biography/autobiography is illustrated. The metaphor for Jews v. Nazis is mice v. cats. Poles (loyal and dis-) are portrayed as pigs. Dogs represent friendly folk of various persuasions.

This book contains disturbing scenes of . . . well. . . the Holocaust.

In the third grade, I took an eight week class called "Jewish Persecution." Yes, you read that correctly. I said 3rd grade. As most of you know by now, my educational background is nothing if not eclectic. I watched film reels from POW camps, I made a Jewish armband and had to wear it around school with my 14 classmates. We were ostracized and ignored by everyone else in the school for the whole day we wore our armbands. I had to move a 5 lb. pile of coffee grounds from one side of the classroom to another, with only a teaspoon as a tool. I read Anne Frank, and had to take on the persona of a Jew hiding in an attic; I wrote in this persona every day for six weeks. I watched portions of documentaries in which former Nazis described what their lives had become (ruins) from taking part in anti-semitic activities, and in which Jews described what their families had become (fractions or zeroes) at the hands of the Nazis and Nazi sympathizers. Nobody won. Everyone lost. People were destroyed by the hatred and the violence and the fear and the intimidation. . .

And in 7th grade, I switched schools and, in meeting a new group of schoolchildren, learned that anti-semitism was alive and well in the U.S.A. I was shocked. Sick. How could we know what we do about the Nazis? The death camps? The effects on both criminals and victims? AND STILL PRACTICE RACISM???!!! It took me awhile to learn that very few of my schoolmates knew much, if anything, about Dachau or Auschwitz or, or, or. . .

It is vitally important that we teach our children NOT to hate. It seems to me that we, as a nation, shy away on a daily basis from showing news about the Sudan, about Bosnia, about POW camps, displaced person camps . . . horrors that are going on AT THIS MOMENT. If I want to have a better idea of what's going on, I'm more likely to find out through the BBC than any American source. Ignorance isn't the answer.

MAUS is an outstanding (Pulitzer prize-winning) way to teach history, tolerance, and humanity. It is rich and compelling. Art Spiegelman has honored every moment suffered by every Holocaust survivor by spending YEARS of his life transcribing HOURS of interviews with his father and illustrating them in breathtaking metaphor.

If you have not picked up this book, please treat yourself. There is no better book for introducing this portion of history to young people. There is no better book for raising issues of ignorance, racism, hunger, oppression, and genocide that people are facing in our world today.

At first blush, this book appears to be a heavy, heavy read. Do not be discouraged. Art Spiegelman balances his father's biography and the history of the Holocaust with autobiographical material beautifully and seamlessly. The reader is able to breathe and reflect at regular intervals during the course of the book. We do not spend every moment in a death camp. We also celebrate life, it's small victories, the love of a family and extended community, and a sense of triumph that we are here, now, and able to talk about the past at all.

While I realize that I more than doubled up by reading the entire collected MAUS work, I didn't feel I had a choice. How could I possibly read only MAUS I, and not know how Vladek Spiegelman survived to tell his story to his son? Believe me, it was worth the time invested.

So what age group? Appropriate for class? Well, obviously I'm probably not the right person to ask. Clearly I think that we need to pro-actively teach multi-culturalism in early elementary classrooms. "Kids, here's what it means to be Muslim. . . Jewish. . . Buddhist. . . Fundamentalist Christian. . . African-American. . . Samoan. . . Hindi. . . Inuit. . . " and on and on and on. Not everyone agrees with me. I get a lot of, "Martha, 8-9 year olds? It's too much, too early, too quick, too soon." I'm sure those kids carrying guns in Sierra Leone felt the same way.

Is it ever too early to teach tolerance, appreciation and understanding? Seems like I see a whole lotta "Oops. . . too late to teach it now" when I see how kids treat each other in jr. high and high school. But, as always, I welcome other points of view.

I'd teach this as early as anyone would let me.
Most people would wait for junior high, and tie it in with 8th grade US History. As Vladek Spiegelman would say, "Ech! Feh!"


. . . and that's what Miss Martha says.


Julia said...

Okay, so I've been posting that I just read my first graphic novel, but that's not true. I have also read "Maus" (years ago), and I love it for the same reasons as you. In fact, I'm finding that I think I really love graphic novels. This genre is really opening up to me. It is a way to really access new knowledge and UNDERSTAND something you have NO background with. I think the graphic novel is a great medium for non-fiction - especially when presenting issues like the Holocaust, the Iranian Revolution ("Persepolis"), or 9/11 ("FINALLY!!! A BOOK!!!").

I also think it has a place with reluctant readers, and English language learners.

Thanks for sharing.

Elizabeth said...

I wanted to read this. I want to read this. I might have to barter to borrow your copy (Teach Me?? Eh?) because after my own graphic novel experience, I think it is a great way to teach, especially history. I've always thought one of the most powerful aspects of the Holocaust is the pictures. You tell kids that millions of people were captured, gassed, and buried in ditches, and the numbers just kind of roll over their heads. If you show them pictures of the graves, piles of abandoned shoes, and all of those horrific (and sometimes traumatic, I know) images they get an actual idea about what happened. It's overwhelming.
Well, way to fan the fire. Now I have to read it. I'm excited that it's out there. Excellent review. I think I might have spelled words wrong in this response.

Thanks for your opinion!

Brittany said...

Bravo, Martha! I think you make a lot of great points and get to the heart of why we NEED to teach this book in the classroom. What I really loved about Maus was not only its beauty and poignancy but also its (post)modernity, edginess, and complexity. A piece of biographical ethnic metafiction? There's one that will give scholars of all ages and interests something to chew on for a long time. I would literally march with homemade signs to get this book in schools.

Elizabeth said...

Things Hoped For? Reaaalllly....I will have to check that out....after turning invisible, what else can happen?

Kelly & John Riley said...

Martha. Yes, yes, I am finally blogging! I know, you can't believe it, right?

This book sounds fabulous. I am with you; it is absolutely imperative that we teach children and young adults (or anyone for that matter) about racism and hate and what terrible consequences such practices can lead to. Every student must know about the Holocaust! But, how should we approach such a subject? This book sounds like a great way to start. From your description, it sounds like it handles the subject in a beautiful way yet refrains from overwhelming readers. Remind me sometime, Martha, to tell you my Holocaust museum experience. It will tear your heart out.

Like, Julia, I am really beginning to open up to the graphic novel. In fact, I am a little shocked that I have avoided it for so long. I guess I thought of this medium as lacking in subjects that interest me. Thankfully, I was wrong. I remember when I was young lamenting to my mother over the loss of pictures in more adult texts. I asked her why adult texts couldn't have pictures. I guess those graphic novelists are asking the same thing. I love it. Thanks for the great suggestion and post!