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A new documentary shows the impact of book bans in Florida public schools on the kids

SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

In the new documentary "The ABCs Of Book Banning," the director, Sheila Nevins, mostly talks to experts.

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE ABCS OF BOOK BANNING")

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: You can look at a shelf, and they've left us with "Junie B. Jones," which...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yes.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: ...Personally, is a second-grade level book...

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: ...For me.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #3: A lot of the Black history books are being pulled.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #1: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #2: Yeah.

UNIDENTIFIED CHILD #4: I don't know if we have any LBGTQ books in our thing, but if we did, they would be taking them away.

SIMON: Elementary, middle, and high school students in Florida who talk about reading books that have been banned and/or restricted by local school boards. Sheila Nevins oversaw documentary programming at HBO for nearly 40 years and has won - this is not a typo - 32 Primetime Emmys, but this is the first time she has directed her own production. She's in her 80s. It is nice to give attention to a newcomer. Sheila Nevins joins us now from New York. Thanks so much for being with us.

SHEILA NEVINS: Thank you for having me.

SIMON: I gather you saw a clip from a Martin County, Fla., school board meeting that set you off on this project. What was that clip?

NEVINS: Well, I saw this woman named Grace Linn, who was, at the time, 100 years old. And I just chanced upon it. You know, when you're just sort of browsing your iPhone and your TikTokking (ph) away, and you suddenly see an older woman fighting for something, and you don't quite know what it is. It says underneath it, you know, Martin County School Board. And then you realize she's fighting for these kids to have the right to read books that have been banned.

(SOUNDBITE OF ARCHIVED RECORDING)

GRACE LINN: My husband, Robert Nichol (ph), was killed in action in World War II, defending our democracy, constitution and freedoms. One of the freedoms that the Nazis crushed was the freedom to read the books that they banned.

NEVINS: And I thought, holy [expletive], this woman is out there doing something, and I'm doing nothing. And I know I'm only in my 80s, for heaven's sake. And here's this woman fighting for young people to be able to read the books that she read and I read and possibly you read, Scott, that in many ways change our lives and make us know about the world we live in. And I thought, I've got to grab her. I've got to get her. And I've got to get some of these kids who've lost the books or who have been deprived of the books to read them and to see how they feel about what they're missing.

SIMON: Some of the books that are mentioned in the course of the film that have been banned include "Slaughterhouse-Five," "Maus," "The Kite Runner," "The Life Of Rosa Parks," "The Handmaid's Tale." I can't come up with a better question than why?

NEVINS: Interesting, isn't it? Why would you deprive children of this information? If you want them to grow up to be like yourself, and yourself has a limited worldview - or at least the worldview that you believe is the worldview they should have - then you take out anything that you would find as questionable - Planned Parenthood, race, religious problems, difficulties. You know, you would simply want to make your child not aware of all these things that make the world a sort of wondrous, difficult, complex and often painful world that we all live in. I'm sort of quoting the kids, which is really odd. How can you deprive me - I'm 12 or 14 or 15 - of information?

SIMON: Why make the choice as a director to interview the students and not parents who are campaigning to ban or restrict certain books or, for that matter, the usual panel of experts from - I don't know - the American Civil Liberties Union and other places that are always...

NEVINS: Well, I mean, you picked the word usual. I don't know that I'm unusual, but I don't like to imitate what's done before. And I felt the children were the victims here, even though adult books were somehow pulled off shelves as well. I felt it was in the beginning that you needed the right and the freedom to learn about the world you were going to be growing up in. And you really didn't have free choice if you didn't have the economic ability or access to pick any book you wanted, but you relied on your school library to get your book, and it wasn't in it. The shelves were empty. The books were, you know, held in abeyance until they were approved or banned completely. So I wanted to go to those who reached for the book and couldn't get it.

SIMON: I want to play a clip from the film. You feature a young woman named Avalee (ph), 16 years old, reading from "The Diary Of Anne Frank."

(SOUNDBITE OF DOCUMENTARY, "THE ABCS OF BOOK BANNING")

AVALEE: I could have been Anne Frank. But, I mean, any of us - if we were born in that time and we were born Jewish - could have had the same experience as her, obviously. Books that I read when I was in kindergarten and books that I've read now and any book that I've read across my life, it is - there is vital information in each one of them that is important to who I am today.

SIMON: Is what Avalee gives voice to exactly what concerns some parents - that reading these books will change them?

NEVINS: Yes. I think that what she says is - you know, that she's formed by these books. She becomes who she is as she identifies with strange and new information. And I think the fear is that your child will not be a copycat of you. Your child might step in the wrong direction and then dangerously fall down some serious hole, when, in fact, it's just the opposite. They might discover a rainbow.

SIMON: Let me ask you about a book that's not in the film, but Harper Lee's "To Kill A Mockingbird" has been restricted in recent years. The Washington Post had an article recently where it noted that it had been banned or restricted as early as the 1960s for its depiction of sexual assaults. These days, it has been dropped by - I'll use the term - progressive school districts because the book uses the n-word and there's a white savior figure, if you please, at the center. Are these restrictions any different than what you're talking about?

NEVINS: That's a really complicated and a difficult question. If you listen to Nikki Giovanni in the film, she basically says, and I have come to believe, nothing should be restricted. It's up to the viewer, especially if it's age-appropriate, which these books which are given out in our film are. But it's a really important point. Should anything be restricted? I think not. She convinced me - Nikki Giovanni convinced me - that you give power to the opposition when you restrict a book. Well, you could argue, well, if you give power to the opposition, then restrict the book and then you'll get a, you know, a turncoat. But I don't think that happens with young people. I think that's a very complicated issue.

There are very few books in which the n-word and murder and things like that are somehow suppressed, or words are suppressed or taken out, but you can count those books on your hand. That's not some 3,000 - close to 3,000 books. These are particular books. Do I personally think they should not be banned? Absolutely. Do I think the word should be explained and the situation explained and the period in which they were created explained? Absolutely. Do I understand why they were restricted? Yes. But I don't think you can compare the liberal restriction of some books in the '60s and '70s and '80s and this kind of restriction, which is, you know, outrageous - and, you know, multiplies these books by thousands. So yes, I agree. Those books should not be restricted either. They should be explained. Bias and prejudice is something that has to be understood. If you suppress it, as one of the kids says very easily, it will happen again, as if it never happened before.

SIMON: Sheila Nevins' documentary - the first directed by her - "The ABCs Of Book Banning," is available to stream on Paramount+. Thank you so much for being with us.

NEVINS: Thank you, Scott, for having me.

(SOUNDBITE OF THE HERBALISER'S "BATTLE OF BONGO HILL") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Scott Simon is one of America's most admired writers and broadcasters. He is the host of Weekend Edition Saturday and is one of the hosts of NPR's morning news podcast Up First. He has reported from all fifty states, five continents, and ten wars, from El Salvador to Sarajevo to Afghanistan and Iraq. His books have chronicled character and characters, in war and peace, sports and art, tragedy and comedy.