Today is the last day of Banned Books Week, a week to celebrate all of the books the American Library Association has censored. Today, I’m interviewing Julia Whitehead, who is the founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum-Library in Indianapolis. (Kurt Vonnegut wrote a lot of books for adults, some of them have been on the banned books list.)
She is a strong believer in not banning books. “When school boards and other governmental organizations try to stifle the ability to read a book, it makes our country less of a democracy,” she said. “Being a democracy is important because that means it is ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’ rather than being for one person or people in power.”
Julia Whitehead is the head of Kurt Vonnegut Museum-Library, and she says that sometimes it feels like a third child. There are fun events at the library like jazz nights, and comedy and dancing. Plus, they also have artifacts, like Kurt Vonnegut’s eye glasses and typewriter. Julia Whitehead was also recently on a TV interview, where she talked about working at the Kurt Vonnegut library and why she thinks banning books is wrong. People can go to vonnegutlibrary.org to learn more about the work they do.
Before she founded the museum, she had many jobs, including being a teacher and newspaper and magazine editor. I learned so much about her! Read our interview below:
Question: Why do you think banning books is wrong?
Answer: I think people should be able to read and write whatever books they want …Some people on both the far left and the far right and even in between the two want to ban books about things they don’t agree with. We have to guard against that. Let me give you an example. I’m Jewish. I do not like Hitler’s book Mein Kampf. But I don’t think it should be banned (and a majority of my fellow Jews agree) because what if one day someone decided to ban our Jewish holy books? We wouldn’t like that either. So the idea is that we will allow information to circulate freely so that people can choose what they want to put into their brains. I hope people will further educate themselves with information from respectable news sources to very what they read on the internet or in books. Kurt Vonnegut said: “If you are an American, you must allow all ideas to circulate freely in your community, not merely your own.”
Q: Can you tell me a little about yourself and where you work?
A: I’ve been a Marine Corps Officer, a newspaper and magazine writer and editor, a staff member in the state governments of both Indiana and South Carolina, a teacher of 100 2nd graders in Thailand, a medical writer for Eli Lilly, and the founder and CEO of the Kurt Vonnegut Museum and Library. The Vonnegut Library is so special to me. It’s not nearly as important to me as my two wonderful sons but sometimes it does feel like a third child because I started it from nothing ten years ago, and now it is a thriving community organization on the local and national level.
There are artifacts of Vonnegut’s like his typewriter and reading glasses but the most important part is the work we do in the museum from educating teachers and students on writing and free speech to going out in the community to work with veterans and those in prison on ways to express themselves creatively. We also have fun with jazz nights and films, comedy and dancing. And our building is in the historic African American Cultural District of Indianapolis, right across from the Madam Walker Legacy Center. One of our great strengths is that our staff and our programming reflect equity and diversity. I love what I do because I believe we make a difference in uplifting and educating lives.
Q: What is your favorite banned book? What about your favorite banned children’s book?
A: My favorite banned Vonnegut book is Slaughterhouse Five. My favorite banned book by another author is And the Mountains Echoed by Khaled Hosseini. That book means a lot to me. I like the way it explores the role of memory throughout our lives. Regarding children’s books, I will always love the Little House on the Prairie series. I started reading it in second grade. I know that it is not a model of how we should live in a diverse society but to me it chronicles history, and I don’t have to agree with every single word in it to appreciate the beauty and meaning in it. I don’t think we should throw away entire works of writing like Harry Potter and others just because we might disagree with something the author said in an interview or expressed in other ways. I think we all have said things at one point or another than might have offended someone. We must learn to forgive each other and also to educate each other. I’m not saying people should refrain from sharing if something offends them. I hope people DO speak out in this way. I’m saying they should share it and give the other person a chance to absorb that information. There are many different experiences as part of the human condition. I think we should be forgiven for what we don’t know. But when we know it, that’s a different story. Then we must be held accountable for what we know and choose to do with that knowledge.
Q: I saw you were recently interviewed about banned books on TV. How did it feel?
A: I love the opportunity to share details about Vonnegut, free speech, and our museum with people. When I first started the museum, I would be very nervous about interviews and speaking from a stage. I don’t get nervous much anymore I think because I feel like I know everything about the museum. I’m still learning about Kurt Vonnegut, and that research will last a lifetime. I appreciate that the media locally and nationally recognizes the important work we do and wants to highlight this work.
Q: What’s your favorite genre to read about?
A: I actually love biographies the best. I loved Kurt Vonnegut’s story. That’s why I created the museum. His life story was fascinating to me. I started reading biographies in second grade when I read about the great Eleanor Roosevelt. I have loved strong, smart women ever since. I read biographies of all kinds of people from all over the world from the Indian philosopher J. Krishnamurti to Madam C.J. Walker.
Q: Out of all of the books you’ve read, what character that you’ve read about is most like you?
A: What a wonderful question. There is a character named “Francie” in Betty Smith’s book A Tree Grows in Brooklyn. Francie grows up in a poor family but she knows education is important and she decides to do the best she can to rise up from the condition into which she was born. Her father was an alcoholic. My father and mother never drank alcohol but there were other alcoholics in my family who left negative impressions here and there in my memories despite the fact that I loved them. Francie’s father did step up to help her at a critical time when she needed someone to step up. She admired her father very much. I’m the same way. My father died when I was 23 but he raised me to think that I could do anything I wanted to in life despite the fact that we didn’t have money. He was a fierce advocate for education and hard work but he also loved jokes and would sing and snap his fingers to music. He was a reader. He would read any book. He thought that would help him to understand all kinds of people. He loved life. Francie and I have many differences but I relate to her more than any character I’ve ever read about in a book.
Q: What quote/mantra/verse motivates you to keep doing what you are doing?
A: Well, there are two, and they both are Vonnegut.
“We are healthy only to the extent that our ideas are humane” and “We are dancing animals!”
Q: What events has the Kurt Vonnegut Museum Library been doing?
A: This week for Banned Books Week, we have had readings of works by authors such as James Baldwin, Ray Bradbury, Toni Morrison, and, of course, Vonnegut. We have had discussions on cancel culture, protesting for change, the women’s suffrage movement, and more. We had a fundraiser event that was a celebration of music, dance, writing, and humor. We have more events before we close out the week including free youth writing programs Saturday, our literary journal release party, and a conversation with the two men who created the graphic novel version of Slaughterhouse Five.