Florida children’s opinions on the freedom to read are highlighted in a newly released documentary, The ABCs of Book Banning. Sheila Nevins, head of MTV Documentary Films and former president of HBO Documentary Films, directed and produced the 27-minute account of resistance to book bans in Martin County, Fla. News broke in March that 84 books had been removed from school library shelves there, sparking an outcry.
The film spotlights centenarian Grace Linn’s activism at a Martin County school board meeting and includes interviews with K–8 students from the area who share firsthand thoughts about the restrictions across Florida. Nevins and her team worked with a combination of original interviews, news clips, and archival material, including footage of poets Amanda Gorman and Nikki Giovanni.
“We had to act fast” to put the film together this year, Nevins told PW. “We decided it was the moment to tell this story from the standpoint of those directly affected”: the children who are fighting back against book bans or only beginning to realize how content restrictions undermine their education.
Nevins opens and closes the film with Linn’s presentation, during which Linn unfurls a homemade quilt of “Targeted and Banned” titles and speaks out about democracy.
Linn’s husband, Robert Nicoll, died in action during World War II, and Linn drew a connection between reading and fundamental democratic principles. “The freedom to read, which is protected by the First Amendment, is our essential right and duty of our democracy,” she said. She told the audience that banning results from “fear of knowledge. Fear is not freedom. Fear is not liberty. Fear is control. My husband died as a father of freedom. I am a mother of liberty.”
Nevins said, “I’ve never met anyone with the spirit and longevity that matched Grace Linn’s. She had such passion for the book banning issue and I felt the need to do this film with her.”
The documentary also features cameos from authors Maya Kobabe (Gender Queer), Justin Richardson and Peter Parnell (And Tango Makes Three), and drag performer Lil Miss Hot Mess (The Hips on the Drag Queen Go Swish, Swish, Swish), plus animated excerpts from Tango and Swish. Nevins said she reached out to these authors because “their books represented the various issues that were being suppressed through this book banning effort: gender difference, diversity, and historical truths.”
The film’s young commentators express frustration at the restrictions on their access to books like Art Spiegelman’s Maus and Anne Frank’s A Diary of a Young Girl. Yeye, age nine, pointedly asks those who would ban Giovanni’s Rosa, about Rosa Parks’s activism, “Do you feel like people should not know about her legacy?... I’m just curious.”
Inaya, age 10 and wearing a pink hijab, reads aloud from a passage in Katherine Applegate’s Wishtree about Muslim people, and Ryan, age 14, reads from Angie Thomas’s The Hate U Give. June, age eight, says she’s concerned that readers may not learn about LGBTQ identities. “Say you want to be transgender, but you know that it’s a bad thing where you grow up, so you’re afraid to express who you really are. You’re hiding a huge part of yourself, and it’s like the world knows less than half of you.”
The ABCs of Book Banning is streaming on Paramount Plus.