Friday, May 2, 2014

Should a 3rd Grader Read Maus?

About a week ago a friend in one of my classes gave a presentation on post-memory bringing in examples from Maus, the graphic novel by Art Spiegelman about a survivor of the Holocaust.  I wondered if this was a book that my nine-year old son and I could read together that would expose him to a difficult historical reality without overwhelming him.  The comic book format seemed kid-friendly enough representing the Jews as mice, the non-Jewish Poles as pigs and the Nazis as cats.  A quick search on google cautioned that the problem with reading Maus with kids is that they do not have the empathy necessary to comprehend the human suffering of the story.  This was my biggest concern and the best argument I found for not sharing the graphic novel with my son, but I decided to read it with him and be especially attentive to his emotional responses to the story.

Maus is about a man named Art Spiegelman (also the name of the author) who has a series of conversations with his father Vladek who is an Auschwitz survivor.  The father and son have a tense relationship not quite seeming to connect or to understand each other and as the story unfolds it becomes clear that the father’s difficult personality is the result of many of the heart-wrenching and traumatic experiences that he has lived through.  The book moves back and forth between two narrative levels; the father’s story of the Holocaust and the son’s story of trying to research and write a graphic novel about the Holocaust.  

The book has been a good way to bring up the Holocaust with my son, especially the day-to-day lives of Jewish families living in Poland in the late 1930s and early 1940s.  One very difficult part to read with him so far (we have one chapter left) has been the separation of Jewish families.  In the book older Jews were among the first to be sent to the concentration camps.  My son cried when the Grandparents were transferred thinking that they were being sent to a retirement community, but were actually sent to Auschwitz.  We skipped over the brutality shown to young Jewish children by the Nazis when they were separated from their families and were too disoriented and fearful to comply with the officers.  I felt that the images in one vignette of soldiers beating a child’s body against a brick wall were too cruel for him to see.  Tonight we will finish Maus and I am left wondering about how and when we allow our children to bear witness to humanity’s dark-side.  Considering what we have read so far my son has met the subject of the Holocaust with more empathy than I would expect of many adult readers.  So, when are they too young, and when are we missing crucial opportunities to shape their sense of ethics and justice?

My son's thoughts (answers dutifully transcribed by his mamá):

What did you think of the book Maus?
I enjoyed it and it was very interesting in some ways.  I learned a lot about the world’s past.

What is the book about?
It starts out about a mouse having some mean friends and when he complains to his father, his father says, “Friends? You’ll know 'friends' after you find out what I’ve been through.”  And then the father tells him about his past and the Nazis and the life that he had trying to survive the Nazi attack in Poland.

What did you learn?
I learned about the past of the world and what not to do when I grow up.

Were there any sad parts that were hard to read?
Yes, just thinking of one of the parts makes me feel uncomfortable.  It’s where their Grandparents tried to survive in a bunker and once they finally got caught they sent them to the gas in Auschwitz.

Do you want to read another book like this?
Mmmmm....maybe, but I’m not sure because it has stuff to do with dying and giving people gas to make them die quicker and that is not a solution.   I can’t understand why the Nazi's wanted pure German blood only and wanted to get rid of the Jews.  The Jews are German too.

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