Of mice and censors: a librarian’s fight against the banning of “Mauss”

It’s a small house along a bumpy country road. The grass is high, the porch a little tired. Inside reigns a cheerful bric-a-brac. Drawings and hats adorn the walls of the living room, as well as figurines from the saga Star Wars and of game of thrones, still in their packaging. A pink star-shaped lamp illuminates the places Alexandra shares with her 13-year-old daughter and her partner.

Musical instruments and records complete this rich multicolored decor. In her native Louisiana, Alexandra dreamed of opera. After studying opera, she finally turned to librarian studies in Oklahoma. For the past four years, she has worked at a private university in Athens, a small town in eastern Tennessee, where she teaches students how to do research, gives reading tips, and more.

The fight against censorship

But, for the past few months, the 30-year-old has been leading a new fight: the fight against censorship. At the start of the year, the graphic novel Maus was removed from the fourth grade curriculum. It was supposed to make it possible to approach the Holocaust, but the school board of the county decided otherwise. In the United States, public education – primary and secondary – is highly decentralized: it is managed at county level, including the definition of curricula, under the supervision of an office elected by the whole population.

Ground invoked by the school board from McMinn County? “Obscenity”. The comic strip, however, recounts the Shoah, transposed into an animal universe. The prisoners are mice, the Nazis are cats. For the rest, everything is true: the author drew on the memories of his father, a Polish survivor of the horror. But naked bodies, words “vulgar” and a reference to suicide struck the school board County.

A Pulitzer Prize on the index

“It is an absurd decision, given the seriousness of the subject, laments Alexandra. Especially since studies show that representing a reality through animals is a better way to approach such serious themes with children. Reality becomes less difficult to face. Short, Maus is a very good way to approach an extraordinary tragedy like the Holocaust in college! »

If this decision caused a lot of talk in the United States, it is because of the reputation of Maus, which earned its author, Art Spiegelman, the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, unheard of for a comic strip. But also because this decision reflects a national trend: according to the American Library Association (ALA), more and more books are in the crosshairs of very conservative associations. “We are seeing an unprecedented number of attempted book bans in every state,” explains the ALA in its annual report published in April.

A matter of procedure

More than 700 complaints were registered in 2021 in schools and libraries, mainly targeting books dealing with racial or gender issues. Among the ten most disputed books, figure The Bluest Eyethe first novel by Toni Morrison, African-American Nobel Prize for Literature in 1993.

Faced with this offensive, Alexandra Sharp does not sit idly by. To hold accountable school board, she set up, with other parents, an association – McMinn County Neighbors. They hold press conferences, challenge elected officials. In Alexandra’s eyes, it is a question of principle, but also of procedure. “That parents can request the withdrawal of a book, it does not shock me, she laments. But there is a process to follow. But nothing was respected. We don’t even know who initiated this decision. »

The county is located in the Appalachians, an ancient mountain range that leads from Alabama in the South, into Canada. It is a region where people work hard and earn little. Its 50,000 inhabitants are almost exclusively white and Donald Trump, in 2016 as in 2020, made a splash there, with nearly 80% of the vote. “That said, I have Republican friends who are also outraged by this affair”emphasizes Alexandra Sharp.

For the time being, the case is progressing little. No one even knows where the blacklisted works have gone.


“Pierrot lunaire”, by Arnold Schönberg

There are several reasons to fight against censorship. Mother of a teenager, Alexandra Sharp is concerned about her daughter’s open-mindedness, and about American youth in general. But his passion for music is not foreign to his fight either. Trained in a music school, an artist herself, her attachment to freedom of expression is very personal. “The discovery of Lunar Pierrotby Arnold Schönberg, was very important to me, she explains. This particularly original work – a suite of twenty-one songs – has had a great influence on me as a composer. It allowed me to develop a unique style of composition without being afraid of being “too different”. » For Alexandra, respect for free expression is inseparable from respect for difference.

We would love to thank the author of this article for this incredible content

Of mice and censors: a librarian’s fight against the banning of “Mauss”