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History in Black and White: Reading Maus in Middle School


Today we have a post from Reading With Pictures volunteer Rosemary Kiladitis. She is a longtime comic book reader, bibliophile, newly minted librarian, and mom of 3. She is a youth literacy advocate who loves reader’s advisory and thinks every classroom library deserves a graphic novel section.

Two years ago, my son’s Social Studies class discussed the Holocaust; he read Elie Wiesel’s memoir, Night, as part of the lesson. At the time, I was working on my Master’s degree in Library Science and taking a Materials for Young Adults class, and had received several good suggestions from Will to enhance my reading list. It was time to return the favor.

“Hey… did you ever hear of Maus?”

Will wrinkled his nose. “Mouse? What’s that?”

I shook my head and explained that Maus was a graphic novel by artist and author Art Spiegelman, where he tells the story of his father and mother’s experiences during the Holocaust and beyond. I’d read it in college and was about to re-read it for class – was he interested? He sure was.

Will’s not a comic book kid. Superheroes hold no allure for him, but history does. He sat down with Maus, and two hours later, emerged from his room, amazed. The stark, black and white art and allegorical storytelling, using cats as Nazis and mice as Jewish prisoners and soldiers communicated the terrifying experiences of those who suffered under the Third Reich. The straightforward, simple prose
was a gut-punch set in a dark fable.

This is what gets and holds a kid’s attention. I say that with the highest respect. My son’s generation is a multi-tasking, video game playing, Internet surfing generation. Short attention spans are the order of the day, and yet many of these kids are using textbooks that are still toeing the old school line. Sure, the pictures may be in color now, and there may be a hyperlink or two tossed into a “For Further Reading” box here and there, but the game has changed. We’ve got a highly visual audience, and many educators
are still stuck using materials that are developed using an old school model.

Maus’ Pulitzer Prize is proof positive that graphic novels should be taken seriously, and educators are getting on board with this line of thinking. There are more and more curricula popping up that bring Maus into the classroom – you can find some on this very site. Bringing novels like Maus, or Jablonski and Purvis’ Resistance into the classroom enhances a lesson and guarantees that kids and young adults will learn and remember, because it goes back to the earliest form of learning – storytelling.