Tuesday, May 28, 2013

My Favourite Illustrated Book by Adrienne Doig

I am a visual artist who has always loved reading and I particularly love books in which the illustrations and the text complement each other perfectly.

My favourite illustrated book is Maus (Part I ‘My Father Bleeds History’ and Part II ‘And Here My Troubles Began’ ) by Art Speigelman (1991, Pantheon Books).  In 1992, it was the first graphic novel to win a Pulitzer Prize.

When Linda asked me to write about illustrated books for the Reading for Australia blog, I was concerned that perhaps Maus was not suitable for 10 to 13 year olds, but then I couldn’t think of another illustrated book that is a better example of the symbiotic connection between story and drawings, that even came close to the beauty and sophistication of Maus.  So I thought I would tell you about it and you (and your parents) could decide whether it is appropriate for you.

It comes with a warning - the subject matter is grim! 

Maus is about the Holocaust, so it is a difficult subject but it is also a very rewarding book, not just because the story is important and needs to be told but also because it is intelligent and clever and even, at times, funny.  On top of all this, the drawings are superb.

Maus is narrated by the artist’s father Vladek, a Holocaust survivor. The novel moves between contemporary events, which depict Art Spiegelman interviewing his father, and the past – Vladek’s experiences during the Holocaust.

The story shifts between past and present with great ease.  Often, because of the way Spiegelman has drawn the two periods on the same page, you see both the past and present together so that you can literally see how the past affects the present.

click to enlarge image

Maus is a book in which pictures and words are in perfect harmony and they work together to take the reader through a story that is unrelentlingly difficult.

Spiegelman represents the characters as animals, (Jews are mice, the Nazis are cats, Poles are pigs and Americans are dogs ) depicted in a comic book style.  But you never lose sight of the fact that this is a true story, that these events really happened.

Presenting the characters as animals allows the reader the space to digest what is happening and to make sense of the horror.  In that sense the story works a bit like a fable.  In his recent post on this blog, Steven Miller commented that “it is somehow much more palatable to be instructed by our furry friends” and this is very true of Maus.  As you know, sometimes it is simply impossible to describe a feeling or emotion in words but in this work Spiegelman describes the indescribable.

There is a wonderful depth to the drawings.  Often the story is very sad, even horrifying, and the illustrations do not flinch in conveying this emotion but, perhaps because Spiegelman is a cartoonist and has that renowned Jewish sense of humour, the books also have moments that are funny and very, very real. These moments allow you to identify with the characters even though their life experience is (hopefully) way beyond your own.

Look at these scenes that show Art and his father Vladek:

Throughout the books, while Vladek is telling his story he is working out on his exercise bike, so the horror of the story he is telling is depicted alongside this banal everyday activity. This gives it a strong sense of reality and truth.

On this page we see Vladek tell Art he doesn’t want him to put some of the things he spoken about into the story.  Art replies “but Pop – it’s great material. It makes everything more real - more human”. And this is exactly what Art does in his drawings, in adding all the little, everyday details and touches he makes the story more real, more human.

There is also something wonderful that happens in this work where the form and the content work both with and against each other.

The figures are graphic and cartoon-like but the characters are NOT caricatures - they are not two dimensional and you are always aware this story is devastatingly real.  The drawing and text are in black and white comic strip style but this is a story in which nothing is black or white.

Naturally, there are the good guys and the bad, but some times good people behave badly, at other times you will be surprised by the actions of the bad. Vladek’s tale is a remarkable story of survival, but he is also a difficult person who is hard to like. Through Art’s often unflattering, but lovingly rendered depictions we come to understand and appreciate his father.

If you do decide to read this book, you will, no doubt, feel saddened but I think you will also feel greatly rewarded and you will also see that people can make great art from the most dreadful of circumstances.

Maus is a devastatingly wonderful book and, even if you are too young to read it now, you should read it some time and get your parents to read it as well.

About the Author 

Adrienne Doig is an artist and lives in Katoomba, Australia.

She likes working in a variety of media including embroidery, applique, drawing, sculpture, video and multimedia. A recurring image or theme in her work is self-portraiture. Her hobbies are reading and gardening and there are many portraits of her reading and gardening.

Adrienne is currently reading the Stella Prize winner Mateship with Birds by Carrie Tiffany and recently read The Secret Lives of Men by Georgia Blain.

Books she remembers from her childhood are:

The Muddleheaded Wombat by Ruth Park
James and the Giant Peach by Roald Dahl
Windmill at Magpie Creek by Christobel Mattingley
February Dragon by Colin Thiele
When Hitler Stole Pink Rabbit by Judith Kerr
Jane Eyre by Charlotte Bronte

Adrienne's website is: http://www.adriennedoig.com/


  1. Thank you Adrienne. A fascinating insight into the art of a graphic novel and sensitive commentary on a difficult subject.

    In deciding how to discuss the Holocaust - and Holocaust literature for children - with your children, parents could start with reading the teachers guidelines published by the US Holocaust Memorial Museum. The link is:


    There are many children's books which deal with the subject including, "The Diary of Anne Frank", "Night" by Elie Wiesel, Morris Gleitzman's "Once" series and "The Boy in the Striped Pyjamas" by John Boyne.

    Other children's books on this subject can be found here:



  2. Great post - though I agree that Maus is probably not suitable for those under 13.

    Margaret Wild's Fox is a picture book that sprang to mind when reading this post: it's definitely aimed at older children (9-13) and the illustrations work seamlessly with the text in developing the harsh themes and emotions that are prevalent. Ron Brooks' uses a mixed media technique to illustrate the book and the vivacity and strength of the book presents a harsh insight into friendship, loneliness, loyalty and betrayal.

    I find graphic novels and picture books that go beyond a basic narrative particularly engaging and educational - without going so far as to become overly didactic. Anything by Shaun Tan is also worth a look!

    1. Thank you for your comments - and for reminding us about Shaun Tan's work.

      Shaun's website is a brilliantly informative treasure trove that is also worth checking out - not just to access his works but to see what Shaun says about art and reading and writing. He's designed it as a resource so that he can be helpful to people like us but not distracted from his work. Have a look at:


      and also see what he says about picture books at:


      Definitely worth a look.