Dandy Cat

The ban of Maus and other essential books

From Rachel Wegner at Tennessean, “Tennessee school board’s removal of Holocaust book ‘Maus’ draws international attention”:

The McMinn County School Board voted 10-0 to ban the book in a Jan. 10 meeting, citing concerns over “rough” language and a nude drawing of a woman, according to meeting minutes posted to the district website.

The difficulty in trying to find a copy of Maus to purchase right now, whether through Amazon or any other, better bookseller, is a sweet irony. I feel compelled to purchase a copy of this important work, having never been assigned to read it in school or motivated myself to absorb its essential story. It’s going to be a long time before I have the opportunity to get it; I’m not upset about that in the slightest.

I went through school in a time and place that didn’t devalue objective education.1 I was assigned Catcher in the Rye, To Kill a Mockingbird, and The Lord of the Flies, among others of their supposedly obscene ilk. I read them and my teachers did their damnedest to impart their importance to us children. Since graduating, I’ve tried to learn more about the world than I was taught in those all too short classes, hence trying to get a copy of this graphic novel. I feel okay, both in my knowledge of history and in my ability to eventually get a copy of Maus. The latter is only a matter of time.

Let the children who have been barred from reading Maus in school get their own copies. They need it far more than I do now. Let them fill their bookshelves with that one, along with Fahrenheit 451, 1984, and Brave New World. Let them pass those forbidden tomes from backpack to backpack like an illicit knowledge trade. I hope they’ll openly read copies of the books during their break periods and lunches. If those are confiscated, then I hope they’ll download digital copies onto their phones and read them in front of those same overzealous administrators who don’t, nay, are incapable of understanding that censorship only emboldens people.

Banned books are not a new phenomenon. You can see an exhaustive (and exhausting) list of the Top 10 Most Challenged Books on the American Library Association’s site, broken down by year and stretching back decades. Every year, school boards across the U.S. decide to start thumping their figurative chests and crow about morality and “family values.” Every year, those who see through the veil of bullshit shake their collective heads and snap up copies of the books that are now taboo. Every year, book publishers get to see an uptick in their revenue thanks to the new bans, which is all that’s ever accomplished.

Strengthening some sycophant’s personal brand of “family values” is never really the outcome. It’s all just masturbatory fascism.

Make no mistake, these bans are never about safety. Removing access to knowledge is about fear and control. A ban on a book translates to “this thing makes me feel uncomfortable, so I want it gone everywhere.” Cue the cries of “Won’t somebody please think of the children?

A sojourn into the reasons for some of these books being banned is a useful exercise:

  • George (now published as Melissa) by Alex Gino: For LGBTQIA+ content and a transgender character; because schools and libraries should not “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion.”
  • Something Happened in Our Town: A Child’s Story about Racial Injustice by Marianne Celano, Marietta Collins, and Ann Hazzard, illustrated by Jennifer Zivoin: Challenged for “divisive language” and because it was thought to promote anti-police views.
  • Prince & Knight by Daniel Haack, illustrated by Stevie Lewis: Challenged and restricted for featuring a gay marriage and LGBTQIA+ content; for being “a deliberate attempt to indoctrinate young children” with the potential to cause confusion, curiosity, and gender dysphoria; and for conflicting with a religious viewpoint.
  • The Hate U Give by Angie Thomas: Banned and challenged because it was deemed “anti-cop,” and for profanity, drug use, and sexual references.
  • Harry Potter series by J.K. Rowling: Banned and forbidden from discussion for referring to magic and witchcraft, for containing actual curses and spells, and for characters that use “nefarious means” to attain goals.

A noticeable trend starts to appear when perusing lists like these. Books must not depict white people in a bad light, no matter how accurate that light may be. Books must not include even vague references to non-straight or non-cisgendered individuals. Books must not challenge the police. Books must not include depictions or discussions about sex or bodies.

And, um, books also must not teach magic spells? Well, that one just makes sense. Without proper censorship, children across the country will start flinging multicolored (dare I say… rainbow) sparks at each other with wizard wands, befriending elf slaves, and endangering the lives of snowy white owls. Vile and disgusting!2

Doing any of these would, as in the case of George, “put books in a child’s hand that require discussion.”3 Discussion and thought are enemies to the people who enact these bans.

Looking at the trend, we can see what’s really at play here: Fear of the other. Couple that with an ego-driven need to horde all control and we’ve got banned books.

My heart sinks for the children of parents who enact and/or champion these bans. They’re going to be the victims of these malicious actions after the dust settles. I do not doubt that young people who work hard to think for themselves and rage, rage against the ignorance they grew up with will find and devour the books they were not allowed to read. But hatred is insidious and sticky, and I worry about those who never open a banned book because they don’t have easy access to them in their schools. They may end up growing into a person who bans Fahrenheit 451 and doesn’t understand how sad and telling that is. Hate begets hate.

Fear of the other is defeated by education. It’s a damn shame that teachers in counties like McMinn won’t be allowed to help stamp out that fear. However, a banned book is forbidden fruit, so maybe students won’t need a hamstrung teacher to show them how to prevail over fear. They’ll read those books just to stick it to the Man.

They’ll do it to rage.

UPDATE: I wanted to avoid drawing any parallels to Nazis when I first published this because of Godwin’s Law, but I’m unable to any longer. Books are being burned now. This has gotten far sadder, but I still implore you to rage against ignorance.

  1. Strange, considering how consistently right-leaning the county I grew up in has been for as long as I can recall. Maybe I just had some kick-ass teachers. ↩︎

  2. But really, there’s a more salient problem: J.K. Rowling needs to work hard at being a better person↩︎

  3. An excuse that disappoints me to my core. Raising children is all about discussion. If you’re not talking to your kids, then what the hell are you doing with them? More to the point, why have them in the first place? ↩︎