The ABCs Of Book Banning


Reviewed by: Jennie Kermode

The ABCs Of Book Banning
"It’s a simple film, but more powerful for it: a film in defence of words which doesn’t need many to make its point."

For a country which likes to boast about its support of free speech, the US has a long history of banning books. What’s more, its politicians have long understood that it isn’t necessary to ban them outright, with all the political difficulty that can involve, in order to keep most people from accessing them. Most people are not going to go to the trouble of ordering books they know little about. Keep them out of schools and libraries and most people won’t know where to start.

Even in the context of this history, the recent rash of book banning across the Southern States has been quite shocking. It includes celebrated works of literature by the likes of Toni Morrisson, James Baldwin and Margaret Atwood, as well as children’s books encouraging confidence, like Ambitious Girl, or acceptance, like And Tango Makes Three. This Oscar-nominated short documentary by Sheila Nevins, co-directed by Trish Adlesic and Nazenet Habtezghi, contributes to the conversation about this phenomenon by bringing in the voices of those with most to lose, and whom we have heard from least: the children.

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They are, as one ten-year-old immediately observes, probably going to be dismissed because of their age; yet her arguments are cogent and pertinent, as are those of the other child participants, some as young as seven. None of them come across as over-reaching, nor give the impression of trying to present themselves as something they’re not. They simply respond to the books and ask why anyone would want to ban them. If they’re naïve, it’s in their sometime failure to anticipate the answers to their questions. Why would anybody object to girls becoming more confident?

“They’re just banning knowledge,” one child protests. Others lament that so many books have been taken from their school library that there’s now nothing interesting to read. One white girl loves reading about black history but no longer has access to it. Her education has been cut off.

Authors contribute too. Amanda Gorman, Nikki Giovanni, and drag queen Lil Miss Hot Mess, whose colourful approach helped to make reading fun for those who might otherwise be reluctant. Then there is a speech, presented to a board of education, by 100-year-old Grace Linn, who speaks with passion about how she lost her husband in World War Two when he fought for his country against a regime which burned books. Banning, burning, the net result is the same, she says – and about fear, which is nothing to do with freedom.

It’s a simple film, but more powerful for it: a film in defence of words which doesn’t need many to make its point. When children’s access to books is restricted like this, they are denied the opportunity to develop their minds at a crucial stage, foreshortening their potential. If that makes you angry, however, seeing the hunger for knowledge which they exhibit in this film will bring you joy.

Reviewed on: 08 Feb 2024
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The ABCs Of Book Banning packshot
Children discuss their feelings about the increasing pace of book banning by US school districts.

Director: Sheila Nevins

Starring: Nikki Giovanni, Amanda Gorman, Lil Miss Hot Mess, Grace Linn

Year: 2023

Runtime: 27 minutes

Country: US


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