Maus: A Review

Hey, everyone!

Here we are: Day One of Banned Book Week! It is my pleasure to bring to you, over the next seven days, seven reviews of books that have been questioned, banned, and ones that I’ve just been waiting to review. Ronell Whitaker over at www.thecomicbookteacher.com is also doing seven in a row starting today, so over the next week, you will be getting fourteen reviews from the two of us that you can use for yourself and the classroom.

I’m starting this week off with a title that most of us that teach comics have taught: Maus. Maus, as many of you know, and if you read this blog on the regular, please let me know if I repeat myself too much on things like this, was the first comic to win a Pulitzer (1992). Maus, created by Art Spiegelman, tells the tale of Art’s father, Vladek, as he and his family attempt to survive the atrocities of the Holocaust.

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Maus has offended folks in the past with its portrayal of the Holocaust: told as a game of cartoon cat and mouse, literally. Apparently individuals have also thought that the portrayal of the characters and how they are drawn could be considered racist. Those people, please forgive the blatant honesty, are completely, wait for it…silly (I know…you expected me to bring it a bit more harshly).

At this point, I’m most likely telling things that you already know about this amazing book, so what I would like to do for day one is veer from my normal review process and take this space and time to tell you about a couple of the cool things I have done with this novel, and please feel free to take these ideas and try them in your own classrooms as soon as you can.

Here’s a quick half/full-class lesson that could accompany a ton of different skills in your classroom: characterization, inference, tone, mood, intro to the sophistication of comics/personal narrative, main idea, supporting detail, etc.

Look at the following self-portrait of Spiegelman that appears on the inner book flap of most copies of Maus:

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During the teaching process of the novel, usually after, I put this image up on my overhead and allow some time for students to reflect on certain aspects of the image. If we just finished the book, I like them to explore the characterization of Spiegelman and what the image tells us about his perception of himself as they reflect on the finished work…very meta, I know. Then after we briefly discuss the characterization of Spiegelman, we make a list of the supporting details that lead the students to their inferences about the drawing, and that helps us understand the author. My students often have a difficult time separating the author from the text, and an activity like this, forces them to consider the author when discussing the text, and it gets them more comfortable discussing items in a work as the product of the author. It keeps me from saying things like “You know the Brave New World never existed, right?” Because when the kids mention the author in their discussion of a work, it’s easier for all of us to see it as a piece of art and not just a “story.”

This image could also be used, with just a bit of background knowledge about Maus and Spiegelman, to open conversations about a countless number of concepts. The ones listed above, of course, but what about the themes of identity, self-doubt, history’s impact on self, family’s impact on self? The list goes on and on. It’s just a very cool image to discuss, period.

Every time that I have brought this image up in a class, we’ve discussed it to the bell. With that being said, you have to have passion for the subject and medium. If you put this thing up, not care about it and expect the students to care, you are setting yourselves up for failure, but if you are reading this far into my post, I’m hoping that you are passionate enough about comics and unique texts to have class-long conversations on one image. It’s also amazing in the AP classroom, just saying.

The narrative structure of this book is also an amazing thing to get excited about pedagogically! Art is telling the story of his father, but he is in the book, as a character visiting his father to get the info for the story, so we see him, in the book, creating the book that we are reading. My students always become fascinated with this concept. Art Spiegelman’s incorporation of himself into the text is a literary lesson in itself. This idea opens your classroom up to some amazing questions:

-Why does Art put himself in the book?

-What does the incorporation of himself in the book tell us about his relationship with his father and his identity?

-Is this Art’s story as much as his father’s?

Once again, the list goes on…

Look, I can talk about this book all day, and if any of you want to continue the conversation, let’s talk! I’d love to, but right now, I have more reading to do in preparation for the rest of the week’s reviews. I just wanted to give you a break from the regular review and let you in on a couple of the conversations that I love having with my kids when we read this book. Try them; you won’t be disappointed. And make sure you head on over to www.thecomicbookteacher.com for more reviews this week!

Happy reading, everyone!

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