(NEW YORK) – PEN America on Wednesday responded to the decision by the Nixa, Missouri, school board to retain Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel Maus while banning six other books under a new state law that prohibits providing sexually explicit materials to minors. Spiegelman told PEN America that he wished the school board would have just “kept their hands off all the books and let students read them.”

Although the board voted to keep Maus on shelves after an email campaign by PEN America, the school board voted to ban a graphic novel version of Margaret Atwood’ The Handmaid’s Tale, Craig Thompson’s illustrated novel, Blankets, and four other books that were challenged by parents or residents.

“While Maus will thankfully remain on bookshelves, there is no reasonable basis for blocking student access to the other six books. These new bans are an unfortunate – and predictable – outcome of legislation intentionally designed to suppress certain ideas,” said Kasey Meehan, PEN America’s Freedom to Read program director. “Librarians and teachers across Missouri are being forced to balance their commitment to their students’ education against their personal concern about running afoul of vague state laws. This is no way to educate our children.”

Spiegelman said: “I’m glad that they didn’t think of Maus as too “sexy” under Missouri’s law; but I wish they’d just kept their hands off all the books and let students read them. Yes Maus deals with a serious topic- genocide– but it deals with it in such a way that it’s speaking to the universal experience of  “othering.” Unfortunately that’s what this fever of book banning is really about. And the decision by Nixa to restrict or remove the other 6 books proves that this fever is still going strong.”

Maus, Blankets, and The Handmaid’s Tale graphic novel had been flagged by district employees. The board also voted to remove the young adult novel Unpregnant by Jenni Hendriks and Ted Caplan, and the picture book Something Happened in Our Town by Marianne Celano and Marietta Collins, and to restrict Lucky by Alice Sebold and Empire of Storms by Sarah Mass by requiring parent permission.

 A committee that reviewed those books had previously voted to retain them without restriction. PEN America considers any instance in which students’ access to books is restricted or diminished a book ban.

Spiegelman’s Pulitzer Prize-winning graphic novel about the Holocaust was initially flagged by an internal review by employees, potentially because of an illustration shows his mother naked in a bathtub after she committed suicide. A Tennessee school district banned Maus last year, and Nixa was the third  Missouri school district to review it this year over concerns raised by the law that makes it illegal for a person affiliated with a school to provide minors with sexually explicit material.

In an exclusive interview with PEN America last week, Spiegelman expressed his dismay over efforts to ban Maus and the widespread movement to ban books nationwide. “We haven’t learned much from the past, but there’s some things you should be able to figure out,” Spiegelman said. “Book burning leads to people burning. So it’s something that needs to be fought against.”

PEN America launched a petition in advance of the hearing, organizing local community members and concerned citizens across the country to urge the school board to keep Maus and the other books under consideration on school library shelves.

PEN America has been at the forefront of documenting and defending against the unprecedented rise of school book bans nationwide as well as the spread of educational censorship legislation to nearly half of all states. Collectively, these bills attempt to put certain ideas and concepts out of bounds in K-12 classrooms, and even in college classrooms. Texas, Florida, and Missouri lead with the most books banned.

Depriving students of literary works flies in the face of basic constitutional freedoms, and PEN America is suing Escambia County, Florida, over its book bans. Black and LGBTQ+ authors and books about race, racism, and LGBTQ identities have been disproportionately affected in the book bans documented by PEN America in the last year and a half. The wave of book banning is worse than anything seen in decades, with PEN America counting more than 4,000 book bans since the fall of 2021.

About PEN America

PEN America stands at the intersection of literature and human rights to protect open expression in the United States and worldwide. We champion the freedom to write, recognizing the power of the word to transform the world. Our mission is to unite writers and their allies to celebrate creative expression and defend the liberties that make it possible. Learn more at pen.org.

Contact: Suzanne Trimel, [email protected], 201-247-5057