Thursday, March 18, 2010

Using Maus to reach the reluctant reader

Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus is so much more than a comic book. This piece of literature by a prize winning artist is another incredible entry into Holocaust memoirs. The author recreates his relationship with his father in a graphic format to share the story of a survivor in a truly unique fashion. Elie Wiesel’s Night is a powerful and deeply moving book, and yet students shy away from the imagery at times, simply too lazy to read. Primo Levi’s works haven’t been on a “To Read List” for a while. To reach those students that we lose with words, Spiegelman offers an incredibly powerful tool, from a very personal perspective. One can only imagine that this piece was created as much as an elegy to his parents.

Spiegelman grew up in the United States, as the child of Holocaust survivors. There are two books in the series. The first is subtitled “My Father Bleeds History,” beginning with a contemporary scene of a grown Art visiting his father and stepmother (his mother has committed suicide, and so his father remarries another survivor). The author asks his father why he remarried if all he does is argues with the new wife. This opens the door to a conversation about the shared experiences and the time father spent with mother. Book one ends with the protagonists entering Auschwitz.

Book two, “And Here My Troubles Began” picks up where book one left off. The different groups involved in Auschwitz camp life are shown not by the color of theiruniforms, but in the artist’s interpretation: the Germans are portrayed as cats, the Poles at are dogs, and the Jews are portrayed as mice, which gives meaning to the title. Book two is the exploration of the experience of Spiegelman’s parents in the camps and through the early post war period as told through his father’s eyes.

What makes this book so powerful is that the author does not pull punches. The story begins with a discussion of the relationship between father and son, and the son’s attempt to understand his father’s behavior. By the end of the second book, the reader is left with a sense of catharsis, the story has been brought full circle. The soul bearing by both the author and the father are incredible. The piece works on many levels. For reluctant readers, the pictures fill in what one might miss in the words of another story. But the power is not lost in the drawings. The drawings carry the story along, carrying such power in an innocuous drawing.

Given the time constraints, the growing curricular demands, and the topical current events, Spiegelman’s work proves even more important. A quick read, the story carries the psychological weight of typical novels. I have used the story to look at Post Traumatic Stress Disorder exhibited in different pieces of literature (see Tim O’Brien and Kurt Vonnegut’s work for beginners). The story can be used as a launching pad in sociology as an opening for cultural norms, genocide studies, familial relations, or interpersonal relations. American/World History teachers can use the piece to teach the Holocaust, or to get a discussion going on the lesser discussed sides of war and its effects on survivors and their children. Literature teachers could easily find many uses. The book is available from Scholastic, and is recommended for middle school and above.

Maus Teaching Resources
Art and Vladek Speigelman on NPR
Introduction to the Graphic Novel Maus Lesson Plan by USHMM Teacher Fellow
Reading Questions and Resources for Maus
Using The Complete Maus Lesson Plan by USHMM Teacher Fellow
Art Spiegelman's Maus: A Different Kind of Holocaust Literature

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