"I wanted to find a story worth telling," said Art Spiegelman of his award-winning graphic novel Maus: A Survivor's Tale. And did he ever. Maus I, the first in Spiegelman's two-part installment, affords students an unconventional format through which they can study the emergence, barbarity, and aftermath of the Holocaust, with a focus on Jewish families. Spiegelman's work presents a dark twist on anthropomorphic cartoon animals: Maus I depicts Jews as mice, Germans as cats, and Poles as pigs. Students can interpret the relationships among these creatures—a long-form, haunting allegory—through the lens of Spiegelman's father, a Holocaust survivor.

A truly special work, Maus I challenges genre norms, containing elements of both fiction and nonfiction. Although a true story, it is told through the use of allegory and other devices common to fiction. Spiegelman's narration about his relationship with his father aligns with characteristics of an autobiography, and his relating his father's experiences with that of a biography. Spiegelman alternates between these two storylines, incorporating an element of metafiction. Finally, the level of Holocaust research Spiegelman conducted for this project throws the history category into the mix, too. Use the book's unclassifiable nature as an opportunity to review multiple literary formats and analyze how they intermingle.

Maus I recounts Vladek Spiegelman's time as a prisoner of war shortly after the beginning of World War II and the progression of Nazi actions against Polish Jews. A history lesson on the German invasion and annexation of Poland, public policies that oppressed Jews, and concentration camps will provide students with a deeper understanding of the events depicted in this graphic novel. There is a world of Holocaust-era resources from which to choose; however, nothing better conveys the terrors of this genocide than testimonies from those who experienced it themselves.

Read more about Maus I below as you consider introducing your class to its tremendous power and rich symbolism.

Summary of Maus I

Key Facts

  • First serialized in Raw magazine in 1980; published as a book in 1986
  • Length: 160 pages
  • Recommended Grade Band: 9-10
  • 1992 Pulitzer Prize for Special Awards and Citations – Letters; 1992 Eisner Award for Best Graphic Album; 1992 Harvey Award for Best Graphic Album; New York Times Bestseller

The graphic novel opens with Art Spiegelman's interview with his father, Vladek, about his life in Poland during World War II and his experiences as a Holocaust survivor. Vladek recalls his relationship with Anja, Spiegelman's mother, who has recently committed suicide. The story alternates between Vladek's troubled relationships with his second wife, Mala, and his son, and his struggles in Europe during Hitler's rule. After the Nazis invade Poland, they subject Polish Jews to progressively worse treatment. Vladek and Anja's extended families are separated as the Nazis deport Jews to concentration camps. The couple's situation becomes increasingly precarious, and they are forced into hiding.

Content Warning: Maus I contains some profanity, allusions to sex, references to suicide, and incidents of violence.

What Your Students Will Love About Maus I

  • The detailed drawings that illustrate every scene in the novel
  • The Spiegelmans' compelling story

Potential Student Struggles With Maus I

  • Reading a graphic novel for the first time in an academic setting
  • Its serious and upsetting content

Learning Objectives for Teaching Maus I

  • Relate the opening epigraph to the graphic novel's major themes.
  • Evaluate the effectiveness and suitability of Spiegelman's cat-and-mouse metaphor.
  • Discuss how Vladek remains affected by his horrific experiences.
  • Identify instances in the text in which the artwork heightens or parallels the emotional content of the story.
  • Assess Spiegelman's decision to weave the stories of the young and the elderly Vladek together rather than telling them separately.
  • Understand the unique challenges faced by children born to Holocaust survivors.
  • Examine Vladek's treatment of his son and Spiegelman's treatment of his father.

Literary Elements in Maus I

  • Autobiography
  • Allegory
  • Biography
  • Foreshadowing
  • Frame Narrative
  • Graphic Novel
  • Irony
  • Metafiction
  • Metaphor
  • Symbolism

Major Themes in Maus I

Racism — The use of animals to portray humans offers an allegory of how the Germans viewed Jewish people.

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Oppression — Many tragic events and situations in Maus I stem from the atrocities of persecution during the Holocaust.

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Family — Much of the story focuses on Spiegelman's troubled relationship with his father and how he is trying to learn about his family through his father's recollections.

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Other Resources for Maus I

Resource Format
Maus I Paperback Student Edition
Maus I Teaching Unit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Maus I Activity Pack Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Maus I Response Journal Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set
Maus I Complete Teacher's Kit Reproducible Downloadable 30-Book Set

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