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Opportunity Springs From Discomfort

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Perhaps it should make one uncomfortable. The power of Spiegelman’s graphic novel is that it is written by a Jew, told by a Jew, and in a vernacular that carries the weight and character of a lived experience.

This is Leslie VonHolten on the High Plains of Kansas with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.
What a coincidence. As we Radio Readers are exploring graphic novels this season, Maus by Art Spiegelman made the news. If you haven’t read it yet, Maus—spelled M-A-U-S—is the true story of Spiegelman’s parents during the Nazi Holocaust. His father, Vladek, was a survivor in every way: by initiative and skill, by his strength of character, and by luck. He is also a master storyteller.

This is Leslie VonHolten on the High Plains of Kansas with another HPPR Radio Readers Book Byte.

What a coincidence. As we Radio Readers are exploring graphic novels this season, Maus by Art Spiegelman made the news. If you haven’t read it yet, Maus—spelled M-A-U-S—is the true story of Spiegelman’s parents during the Nazi Holocaust. His father, Vladek, was a survivor in every way: by initiative and skill, by his strength of character, and by luck. He is also a master storyteller.

So, I was shocked when news broke that some school districts are removing Maus from the curriculum because it makes students feel—quote—“uncomfortable.”

One school board defended its decision by saying that the Holocaust should indeed be taught—but just not in this way. One Band aid to removing the book has been to recommend more sanitized versions of the Holocaust. But the power of Spiegelman’s graphic novel is that it is written by a Jew, told by a Jew, and in a vernacular that carries the weight and character of a lived experience. A textbook about the Holocaust cannot deliver the visceral experience that Maus does.

For kids to miss out on this powerful book because of an illustrated naked body or an everyday curse word is a form of cultural sanitation that does not respect the students—who yes, newsflash, can handle discomfort.

Removing Maus from the curriculum also robs students and parents of the wonderfully complex, real-life relationship that Spiegelman had with Vladek. His father who drove him crazy, but whom he also admired.

I’ll show my cards here. Vladek is one of my most adored literary characters. He is a big, complex, and maddening personality. After everything he has survived, how can he possibly be enraged when someone opens a box of salt before the first one is empty? What a great scene he makes when he returns the opened Special K cereal to the grocery store after his wife leaves him. He doesn’t want the food or his money to go to waste. And how disappointing when Vladek’s own racism rears its stupid-ugly head, even though it was racism that slaughtered nearly everyone in his past life in Poland.

Maus is about the Holocaust, but it is also a grand lesson in teaching children to consider their parents as people, folks with lives before their children were even born. To be seen as fully human by your children—what a gift that is! For them to recognize the sources of your complexities, and perhaps better understand the way you move through the world. Maus can jumpstart that experience for kids when parents want to engage with their school assignments and curriculum.

Did my kids learn things in school that I didn’t agree with? Absolutely. But we talked about it. That’s what the dinner table is for, or the drive to school, or running errands together on the weekends. Teenagers are notoriously difficult to talk with but having a common text like Maus can sometimes help you get through. Literature bolsters compassion in kids. Yes, Maus is a horrific and uncomfortable story about the Holocaust. But it’s also a universal story of children and parents.

This is Radio Reader Leslie VonHolten hoping you will join us in reading and seeing the power in graphic novels this season. Find more at HPPR.org, or Like us on Facebook.

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Spring Read 2022: Graphic Novels—Worth a Thousand Words 2022 Spring ReadHPPR Radio Readers Book Club
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