A patron enters the Portland Public Library on Friday, April 15, 2022. Librarians say they've seen an uptick in demand for books recently banned by school boards in other states. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

Interest in a graphic novel about the Holocaust is surging at Portland’s library after it was banned in Tennesse.

“Maus” by Art Spiegelman has long been considered a literary classic and a pioneering graphic novel. But after nearly 40 years on shelves, it was efforts to silence its message that has sent it into new hands across Portland.

The book portrays Spiegelman interviewing his father, a Holocaust survivor, about his experiences in Poland during World War II, including at the Auschwitz concentration camp. It also explores how his father’s trauma has affected their father-son relationship. The book is well-known for its distinct art style: Jewish people under persecution are drawn as small mice and Nazi troops as vicious cats.

There has been a sizable increase in check-outs for the book in recent months, something likely attributable to the attention around its status as a banned book, said Vicky Smith, access services director at Portland Public Library.

Interest began intensifying shortly after a Tennessee school district voted 10-0 to remove “Maus” from its curriculum in late January. Since then, the Portland Public Library has seen so much demand, it has ordered three new copies.

This cover image released by Pantheon shows “Maus” a graphic novel by Art Spiegelman. The wave of book bannings around the country has reached a level not seen for decades. Credit: Pantheon via AP

That rarely happens for a book of its age, Smith said. Sections of “Maus” were first serialized in a magazine in 1980. It was published in book form in 1986. Both volumes of Maus are available in the Portland library, though it is “Maus I” that has received the most attention so far.

While Smith noted she had not spoken to the individuals who had checked out “Maus,” she said the correlation was fairly clear. While the library has seen dispersed interest in other books recently challenged or banned nationwide, no spike has been as evident as that of “Maus.”

Smith said it was somewhat disheartening that it was negative attention that had brought readers to the book. Still, she is glad people are reading it and has no doubt that it will move the people who take it out.

“It’s such a powerful story – both the Holocaust account and also a look at what it’s like to be an adult child of a survivor of the Holocaust,” Smith said.

Portland is not the only place in Maine where efforts to ban the book have backfired: “Maus” was one of several banned books that a library on Matinicus Island off the coast of Rockland plans to add to its collection after requests from residents.

The book, the only graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize, has also drawn acclaim from established authors, including Portland-based author Monica Wood, known for her novels including “The One-in-a-Million Boy,” who called it a masterpiece.

Wood has loved “Maus” for decades: her 1990s book “12 Multicultural Novels: Reading and Teacher Strategies” provided a blueprint for teaching it. 

At the time, even the phrase “graphic novel” was hardly in the popular consciousness, though “Maus” was, by then, helping to change that.

“I don’t understand why this book would be banned. It’s a beautiful story about a father and son,” Wood said. “And it takes place in the sweeping backdrop of a part of history that, if we don’t keep teaching it, will be forgotten.”

From a writer’s perspective, Wood noted the visual devices Spiegelman skillfully used to create empathy for his characters.

“There’s something visceral about the drawings themselves that allow you into the world of the cats and mice, or the Nazis and the Jews, in a way that words would struggle to accomplish the same task,” Wood said.

Wood said it was heartbreaking to see “Maus” banned along with so many other books across the country. Yet, she was exuberant that the ban had backfired so thoroughly.

“We need to open up – not close down,” Wood said. “Ideas are not lethal.”

The first Maus book was the fourth best-selling non-fiction paperback book among independent book stores in New England last week, according to data from members of the New England Independent Booksellers Association and Indiebound. Those associations include dozens of bookstores in Maine.

The Portland Public Library stands under blue skies on Congress Street on Friday, April 15, 2022. Librarians say they’ve seen an uptick in demand for books recently banned by school boards in other states. Credit: Troy R. Bennett / BDN

While Smith sees the intense national attention around Maus eventually dying down, she has little doubt it will resonate in the years to come. Noting that most of the interest had come for the first volume, she hopes Portland readers check out the second part.

“It’s always going to be an incredibly powerful work that has the capacity to move people and cause them to look at the world in a different way,” Smith said. “And that’s what we want to develop from literature.”