Illustrator stands by graphic novel of Anne Frank’s diary that got Texas teacher fired

As It Happens7:33Illustrator stands by graphic novel of Anne Frank’s diary that got Texas teacher fired

The artist who illustrated a graphic novel adaptation of Anne Frank’s diary was shocked to learn it played a role in getting a Texas teacher fired.

“I’m very sorry to be involved in any way in, you know, compromising someone’s livelihood,” David Polonsky told As It Happens host Nil Köksal. “It is disturbing.”

Nevertheless, Polonsky says he stands by Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, a critically beloved book published in 2017 to make the teenage Holocaust victim’s famed memoir more accessible to a young audience. 

Six years after its publication, the book has become the centre of a political firestorm in several U.S. school districts because of its inclusion of previously censored passages about Frank’s sexuality.

“I must admit, I did expect that there would be some pushback on these specific parts in some places,” Polonsky said. “But I didn’t expect that it would come specifically from the United States — and actually only from the United States.”

‘She’s not a mascot for the Holocaust’

Frank was a German-born Jewish teenager who kept extensive diaries during the two years she and her family were in hiding during the Nazi occupation of The Netherlands. 

She died in a Nazi concentration camp, and her words were published posthumously in 1947 in the international bestseller The Diary of A Young Girl, widely known as the Diary of Anne Frank.

But the book omitted several passages from the girl’s diary, including one in which she describes male and female genitalia.

In one omitted passage, she muses that female nudes make her feel a sense of “ecstasy.” In another, she recalls trying to convince a female friend they should look at each other’s breasts — and when rebuffed, thinks about wanting to kiss her. 

When Anne Frank Fonds, the foundation that holds the copyright to Frank’s diary, first commissioned the graphic novel adaptation, Polonsky says he and writer Ari Folman believed it was important to include the previously censored materials. 

“We accepted this challenge because we felt it was important to keep this story alive, and also to portray Anne as a full human being,” he said. “She’s not a mascot for the Holocaust. She’s not a symbol. We think it’s important to represent her as a complicated young writer.”

Anne Frank seen writing at a desk in April 1941. The teenager’s diary passages about her budding sexuality and attraction to women were omitted from the original publication of Diary of a Young Girl, but later brought to life in a graphic novel adaptation. (Anne Frank Foundation/The Associated Press)

In illustrating those more sensitive pages, Polonsky says he took great care to make sure nothing was too explicit for young readers. 

Frank’s musings about vaginas are illustrated with a black and white swirl, inspired by painter Georgia O’Keefe’s famously vaginal flowers, he said. When Frank ponders female nudes, Polonsky draws her walking through a garden surrounded by Greek sculptures.

“I took inspiration from Anne’s own world. She was really into Greek art and sculptures,” he said. “I decided to show the nudes through classical marble sculptures, which I believed six years ago would be a mainstream thing that wouldn’t be too controversial.”

And for the first six years the book was available, it wasn’t. But this year, everything changed.

A spread from a graphic novel. On the left, a young girl lies in bed next to her friend and asks if they can touch each other's breasts, then muses about her desire to kiss her. On the right, the same girl walks through a garden with nude marble statues, all carefully placed to show no explicit nudity, and the accompanying text reads: 'I must admit, every time I see a female nude, I go into ecstasy!" and "If only I had a girlfriend!"
These pages from Anne Frank’s Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, published by Penguin Random House in Canada, have sparked controversy in Texas and Florida school districts. They illustrate passages from Frank’s original diary that were omitted from The Diary of a Young Girl. (Submitted by David Polonsky)

In April, a Florida high school pulled the book from its shelves after the leader of a conservative advocacy group challenged it, claiming it minimized the Holocaust. 

It was then pulled from a North Texas school district’s libraries in August.

And this month, a teacher at a Texas middle school was fired after reading passages to a Grade 8 classroom, according to KFDM, a CBS and Fox affiliate.

A composite image of a book cover in the centre for Anne Frank's Diary: The Graphic Adaptation, flanked by portraits of men with white hair.
Ari Folman, left, and David Polonsky, right adapted Anne Frank’s diary into the graphic novel, which has now been banned in several U.S. schools. (Anne Frank Fonds/Pantheon)

Mike Canizales, a spokesperson for the Hamshire-Fannett Independent School District, declined to comment directly on the situation, but shared an email with CBC, which he says the District sent to eighth-graders’ parents on Sept. 15.

“As you may be aware, following concerns regarding curricular selections in your student’s reading class, a substitute teacher has been facilitating the class since Wednesday,” it reads.

“The District is currently in the process of posting the position to secure a high-quality, full-time teacher as quickly as possible. During this period of transition, our administrators and curriculum team will provide heightened support and monitoring in the reading class to ensure continuity in instruction.

We appreciate your trust and partnership as we all work towards the common goal of safeguarding your child’s educational environment.”

‘Anne Frank pornography’

The decision comes amid intense scrutiny in the U.S. over what constitutes appropriate reading material for minors. Several states, including Texas and Florida, have passed laws restricting access to books in school curriculums and libraries. 

As a result, the American Library Association says the country has seen a record number of attempted book bans and restrictions, with the vast majority of complaints directed at works about race, gender or sexual orientation.

Texas, the ALA says, topped the list for attempted book bans in 2022.

Amy Manuel, a mother of Grade 8 twins in the Texas class where the Anne Frank adaptation was read, told KFDM: “I don’t like them shoving all [these] sexually explicit things down my kids’ throats.”

In an interview with the Jewish Telegraphic Agency earlier this year, Florida Rep. Randy Fine, a Republican, called the graphic “antisemitic” and “Anne Frank pornography.”  

Asked about Fine’s remarks, Polonsky said: “I just can’t take it seriously.”

“I think it’s part of this kind of hyper heated debate that has nothing to do with real things and real intentions and people and ideas,” he said. “It’s just this kind of theatre and I’m just not part of it.”

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