Documentary Critiques Book Bans of ‘Maus,’ a Version of ‘The Diary of Anne Frank’ and Others

“The ABC’s of Book Banning” is up for this year’s Documentary Short Oscar
February 8, 2024
Sheila Nevins (photo by Valerie Chang)

When Sheila Nevins saw footage of 100-year-old Grace Linn speaking out against book bans by Florida’s Martin County School Board, nearly a year ago, she was inspired.

“I didn’t know so much about the book banning at the time,” Nevins, the head of MTV Documentary Films  said. “But I said, ‘wow, here is someone whose husband was killed as a soldier in World War II, and she is talking about fighting for freedoms at 100. I better get off my bum and do something.’”

The result is “The ABC’s of Book Banning” which Nevins, 84, directed with Trish Adlesic and Nazenet Habtezghi and is streaming on Paramount+. The short is bookended by clips of Linn speaking and features the perspectives of more than 10 children, ranging in age from around 7 to 16. It has been nominated for an Oscar in the “Best Documentary Short Film” category and at about 27 minutes, it packs a punch because it features articulate students, rather than politicians or parents.

Avale, 16, speaking about the banning of “Anne Frank: The Graphic Adaptation” which was adapted by Ari Folman, said she could have been Anne Frank.

“I am who I am today because of the books that I’ve read,” Avale explained.

Kierran, 15, spoke about the Art Spiegelman’s graphic novel “Maus,” which tells the story of his Holocaust survivor father, Vladek, with Jews as mice and Germans as cats.

“I feel like if you are trying to ban this book you’re just trying to ban Jewish history,” he said. “You’re stealing knowledge. Why would you want to steal knowledge?”

“And Tango Makes Three” is a book about two male penguins at the Central Park Zoo who raise a child. It was one of the top ten most banned books in the first two decades of the 21st century, according to the American Library Association. Korben, 7, says he believes the ban took place because some “think it was weird that two boys could love each other.”

“Rosa” about Rosa Parks, who famously stood up for her rights by refusing to go to the back of the bus, was also banned.

“Do you feel like Rosa Parks is a bad person?” asks Yeye, who is 9.

The film includes a few animations of scenes from the books.

Nevins said the banning of more than 2,000 with others being restricted is troubling.

“What are they afraid of?” Nevins asked. “Do they think a child will read these books and become Jewish, become gay or become Rosa Parks

She said the banning efforts will have the opposite effect and children who hear something is forbidden become more interested in the topic and want to access information.

If a book is challenged, it means an objection has been raised and a school board could act, while if a book is restricted, a parental consent form might be needed before the book is checked out. Advocates of book banning maintain they are not trying to erase history but are seeking to protect children from sexually inappropriate material. The chief political proponent has been Republican Florida Governor Ron DeSantis, who has said that students should be “free from sexualization and harmful materials that are not age appropriate” while Florida Commissioner of Education Manny Diaz Jr. has said that “education is about the pursuit of truth, not woke indoctrination.”

Nevins said she did not include those who support bans in the documentary for a few reasons.

“We’ve heard from them already and we haven’t heard from the children,” she said. “Many books have been banned already but if they had not been banned yet and that was the debate, I may have included them.”

School boards have discretion of what books may be in school libraries but there is no universal standard for what should or should not be acceptable and challenges by parents can result in a book being banned or restricted. It is a hot button issue that could be an topic in this year’s presidential election.

“I think it will reach the highest levels because more and more people are becoming concerned,” Nevins said.

In the 1982 U.S. Supreme Court case, Board of Education Island Trees Union Free School District No.26 v. Pico, involved five students alleging that the removal of books from  the school library amounted to a violation of the First Amendment. The justices split 4-4 with Justice William Brennan stating that school boards cannot remove books due to an author’s ideology, but have discretion, for example, regarding vulgarity.

“The ABC’s of Book Banning,” is a striking, poignant, and timely film that will divide audiences; cheered by those against book banning  and get those who support the bans angry. It may cause some to reflect on what children think, while the question of what is appropriate for a specific age is not an easy question to answer. The documentary includes statements or readings from a handful of the authors whose books have been banned, restricted or challenged, including Lil Miss Hot Mess, a founder of Drag Queen Story Hour and author of “The Hips of The Drag Queen Go Swish Swish Swish.”

There have been protests over drag queens doing readings at libraries, while others argue that attempts to stop such events were unconstitutional or unethical.

“Why can’t a drag queen read a fairy tale?” Nevins asked, adding that William Shakespeare had male actors play the female characters as at the time in England women were forbidden from taking the stage.

Nevins has had a career that would make anyone’s jaw drop. Growing up on New York’s Lower East Side, her family was not well off but she always excelled in school.  Her grades were good enough to get her into both Barnard College and the Yale School of Drama, where, where as one of two women in the directing program, she got her MFA in Directing.

She needed a job and thought it would be easier to get hired in television. She was eventually hired by HBO and would serve in several executive positions, including President of HBO Documentary Films. She has won a record 32 Primetime Emmy Awards and has worked on projects that have garnered 42 Peabody Awards and 26 Academy Awards. She produced more than 1,000 documentaries for HBO.

Among the documentaries she produced are “Manhunt: The Search for Bin Laden” and “The Jinx: The Life and Deaths of Robert Durst.”

Currently the head of MTV Documentary Films, she said there were some naysayers as she rose in prominence, decades ago, including some men who told her “you’re too pretty to work so hard.”

She said she has been outspoken and hasn’t been afraid to give her artistic opinion.

As for why she has fought for civil rights, including women’s rights and battling against racism, antisemitism and homophobia, she said she found that her work was rewarding because it could impact people’s emotions and beliefs.

Maybe fighting for justice is in her DNA,” she said. “Or maybe not.  I’ve always felt there is great power about telling real stories.”

Asked if she had a favorite documentary that she produced, she said it was hard to choose but in a television interview, she said she took pride in producing a post-9/11 documentary. “In Memoriam: New York City” was one of the definitive works that recounted the horrific day of the attack; when it aired in May, 2022, New York City Mayor Rudy Giuliani said it “ must be what Dante would describe as Hell.”

Nevins said while she’d like “The ABC’s of Book Banning” to win an Oscar, the important thing is that people become aware of the pertinent issues. Despite her long list of awards, she didn’t bank on the film getting selected.

“I did not expect it,” she said. “It’s nice to be nominated. I think each of the films has something important to say.”

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