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Letters About Literature National Winners 2015

National Winner, Level 2 National Honor: Jonathan Hoff

Dear Art Spiegelman,

History. Not my favorite subject throughout middle school. Mesopotamia, King Tutankhamun, Julius Caesar – I cannot really associate with these topics; I find these subjects rather boring. I have found my interest in history non-existent. Sometimes I just do not understand the “why” part of history. For example, why have people throughout history fought so much? Why is there such prejudice in the world? How come there have been world wars, but not world peace? There are just too many “whys” for me that cannot be explained. The way the material is presented in school has also been a problem for me. I have a severe visual disability and find it very difficult to follow along in a book and track the words. History books are usually huge and have a plethora of words written on each page. This is problematic for me and, unfortunately, my interest in history has dwindled over the years due to these issues.

Your book Maus has changed my relationship with history, has changed the way I look at history, and has changed the way I view my world. I am in eighth grade and have struggled for years with reading books for school due to my disability. I am legally blind in one eye and also have other visual difficulties. If there are too many words on a page, my eyes cannot tract the information and I lose interest. It is too overwhelming for me. I turned to art and drawing as a way to relieve my anxiety. I have been known to doodle all through my middle school classes. Taking cartooning classes has helped me hone my skills and show emotion and movement with my drawings. I do my best doodling during math and social studies. My teachers may not appreciate my artwork, but art and drawing are ways for me to relax, focus and learn.

When I learned our eighth grade Language Arts class was going to read your book, Maus, and that it was a graphic novel about the Holocaust, I have to admit I was intrigued and relieved it was not just any other history book. How could such a serious topic be presented in a comic book format? I thought about the prejudices during that time period against Jewish people and I could not fathom how an author could possibly present this serious topic through the use of a graphic novel. A comic book about the Holocaust? How could it be possible? You, Mr. Spegelman, made this concept possible.

Your novel, Maus, because it was written in a graphic novel format, made me understand the atrocities of World War II, and the hatred the Germans had for the Jewish people in a way I could understand and appreciate. Characters are depicted as animals which makes it very easy for the reader to identify the subjects. Using mice, cats and pigs to tell a serious, historical, and personal story makes me believe there is hope for me to one day love history. The panels on each page brought your father’s story of his experience during the Holocaust to life. The surprise of finding your private comic book about your mother’s suicide within this graphic novel about the Holocaust was courageous. I never expected to find such a personally tragic event in an already tragic account. The distortions and exaggerations of the settings drawn within the panels showed me mood and tone that I would have never gotten from the written words. The illustrations truly impacted the novel in a powerful and commanding way.

Furthermore, your book has proven to me that all students learn differently. Not every student has the ability to read a book, memorize the information, and take a test. How much information is actually retained when learning in this manner? For me, not much. The way the material is presented to the student can make a huge difference in what the student retains. Your personal experience and your family’s experience during and after the Holocaust impacted my life in a positive way. The book did this by using visual illustrations to help me to learn more about history, and how history shapes our future. Students are not all made from the same “cookie cutter.” We learn differently because we are all different. Students need to be inspired by being exposed to different ways of thinking and your book has done that for me. Maus has helped me to understand a very difficult and horrific part of history. Your book has also inspired me to use my writing and drawing talents to inspire others.

Jonathan Hoff