Banned Books Week is is like Christmas, Halloween, and the 4th of July all rolled into one for libraries. It’s the one time of the year they get to go all out and celebrate what they do. This year, DCPL is going hard with their Uncensored cocktail party, which will feature booze from a slew of great D.C. bars, a bunch of art, and performances from Baby Bry Bry & the Apologists, Delafield String Band, and Reginald Cyntje. It’s going to be great. We chatted with librarian Esti Brennan about some of the more exciting Banned Book Weeks happenings, plus we had her talk about some of her favorite banned books. Let’s dive in.
Correct me if I’m wrong, but Banned Books Week feels like the library’s Christmas.
A little bit.
I feel like it is the most excited, and the most decorated, I ever see the library.
It’s true… We actually have a display contest going between all of the different libraries to see who can do the best book display. I think the prize is a pizza party for your branch, which kind of makes you feel like a little kid and you get a pizza party because your class has perfect attendance, or something like that. It’s pretty exciting. I’m really rooting for Mt. Pleasant obviously because it’s my branch and one of my coworkers has definitely put lots of effort into our display every year.
What’s your display?
I don’t know yet!
She hasn’t revealed it yet. It’s going to be a surprise.
Is it going to be displayed before the big Uncensored party?
I’m not sure yet, but that’s just the downtown library, the branches usually do things like have a teen banned books reading before the party, or something like that. One of the branches, I think a Northwest one, is doing blackout poetry. They’re taking pages from old books and blacking out the words. Sort of like anti censorship using the tools of censorship.
You guys have a lot of stuff going on. Especially teen focused stuff. Why do you think Banned Books Week is so targeted to teenagers? I know it was when I was in high school.
Teenagers are a good target demographic for it because it’s getting to people who haven’t really thought about things like transparency, privacy, and censorship, at this point, and saying to them, “Hey, this is something you want to consider.” Taking it to schools is a really good way to get that connection, but also, there’s the sort of cliche of rebellion that comes with being a teenager. I know when I was a teenager there were definitely books that I read specifically because someone either told me, “You’re too young for that,” or, “That book is dangerous.” So it’s a combination of teenagers having this specific interest and we want to get the message out.
Did you grow up in an environment where you could read whatever you wanted? Or were your parents like, “No Harry Potter!”
Oh no, we were all about Harry Potter. My Mom was a big reader and she was always up for whatever I wanted to read. Teen books really didn’t exist when I was a teenager the way they do now, so I skipped from, like, Babysitters Club… or Nancy Drew, straight to adult literature. Now there is all this great teen literature out there, but I still really like the way I did it. I’m really glad that my mother at least, some teachers were a bit iffy about what I read, but my mom was always really supportive of it.
Do you remember the first adult book you read that you realized was a book for adults? Like maybe there’s cursing and sex and general adult themes. Mine was The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy in sixth grade.
That’s a good one.
Yeah. I remember liking it because it was very funny, but there were also a lot of curse words and there was some sex and I remember reading it and thinking, “Oh yeah, this is an adult book.”
The book that comes to mind, but I don’t think at all this was the first one… actually… I think I sent you guys a blurb about this one before was White Oleander by Janet Fitch, which is still one of my favorite books. It came out when I was about 13 and it was less that it was shocking content, or something that I hadn’t seen before, but more like my mom had loved it and she gave it to me for me to read and then we found out that we thought exactly the same way about it.
That’s another good way to see it.
It made me feel special.
Definitely. You’re having adult emotions.
Yeah, although it’s definitely not a book most people would give to their 13 year old daughters. It involves a 13 or 14 year old girl who goes through the foster care system, and one of the first places she’s at she has an affair with her foster mother’s boyfriend.
Oh No! That’s upsetting on so many levels.
It’s a beautiful book though.
If you could un-ban one book across the country, what would you choose?
Well, besides all of them, I think, in terms of pointlessness, I think banning Harry Potter is really ridiculous. Especially because Harry Potter created a massive revolution in getting kids to read that hadn’t happened in a really long time. So for certain people to say, “No, we’re not okay with this fairly innocuous fantasy content,” and to want to take that away from kids who had never felt that excited about a book before, is really upsetting to me. As far as adult books go, there is absolutely no reason to ever ban an adult book. We’re adults. It’s our choice what we read. So, I get a little more heated about censoring children’s books, I think, because they don’t have as much control.
Outside of Harry Potter, what do you think is the most ridiculous banned book?
One of the more famous banned books is James Joyce’s Ulysses, which couldn’t be published in the U.S. decades after her wrote it. Which… It’s not that there is no controversial content in it, but it’s one of those books that so few people manage to read, and in order to understand what’s going on you have to be so committed to it, that the people who are censoring it either didn’t read it, or really thought through it way too hard. So that’s one I think is weird anecdote, because by banning it more people read it than they ever would have, which is probably the same for a lot of older controversial books, like Lady Chatterley’s Lover and stuff like that. They got attention more because they were banned then they ever did because they were shocking.
Do you think that books are banned for the same reasons they used to be?
I think it’s changed because there is sort of a wider net now. We all know about Twitter outrage and stuff like that, so it’s much easier for people to find things to get upset about and jump on the bandwagon. And there is also more stuff being published than ever before. So, I would say the underlying cause, especially with banning books from schools, is that people are misguidedly protective of children and I think that probably has not changed all that much. But there’s also, even from what we might consider my liberal sources, people who want to ban books because they have a problem with the author’s views, or something like that. That’s something that was usually not common knowledge before. Like, I saw a challenge to Ender’s Game. Not because it’s an incredibly messed up book about carnage and small children, but because Orson Scott Card, the author, has some really controversial views. I think his views are terrible. I don’t agree with them, but I don’t think it’s a reason to ban a book. So, I think that’s a reason that maybe didn’t come up before.
Interesting. Usually when you think of book banning, you think of conservative people. Do you think, this has become more of a thing that people with liberal and conservative views are interested in?
Yeah, I guess so. It’s a bit hard to tell because most of what we know about the history of book banning kind of comes from the conservative side of things. Especially in the United States. Obviously book burning was not a partisan act as much as it was an act of control.
It was just a fun party for everyone.
Yeah. But, censorship is always an act of control, so I definitely think it comes from both sides, but this sort of unexpected, liberal, ideological censorship is probably new, or at least newly visible.
Do you think people who don’t work at the library are excited about Banned Book week? Do you have patrons that are excited about it?
According to our Twitter feed, yes. People are especially excited for things like our Uncensored party. It’s the only thing of its kind the library does, and last year was the first one. So people are really excited for that, and I think the fact that it’s like a party and there are cocktails, but also, it’s an art installation, and it’s really there so that the library can raise money to continue doing what we do.
I don’t know if you’ve seen the pictures of our banner that’s up.
It has a quote from The Color Purple, which is an extremely, famously banned book.
What events are you excited for?
We have a couple really exciting speakers, on the 29th Phyllis Reynolds Naylor and Deborah Hautzig are going to be at the Tenley Library talking about censorship and teen literature especially because they’re both quite controversial writers, but also writers who, teen girls especially, have really cherished for a long time.
What would be your perfect Banned Book Week event or party?
My ideal is, I just found out today that Alice Walker, whose quote is on our banner, is going to be in town this weekend, so I really want to see if I can contact her publisher or something and get her to stop by and take a picture with us.
But I think in my ideal of it, the author is a really key factor because the authors whose books end up banned are really huge proponents of anti-censorship movements and stuff like that, so anything that the library does to connect with them is a really big deal for us. And, I’m all for the Uncensored cocktail party. I think it’s going to be fun. I got to work there last year and it was a really good time. The music this year is going to be super exciting. Last year we only had one band, which was great, but now it’s like, we have three because why not?
It seems like Banned Books Week has evolved from something focused specifically on banned books to a week of events that focus on censorship in general. Why do you think that is?
The way the media works has changed so much. It’s not that censorship outside of books wasn’t a thing before, but I think the scale that banned books week had started out with was very much about just libraries, and that was in the early 80’s when libraries were just books. Maybe they would have archives and things like that, but really all they did was check out books to people. Now, we are the main internet hub for a huge portion of the population and we are a teaching hub for technology for a large portion of the population. So we try to talk about things like online privacy, which is really tied to censorship of course. I think as the libraries role has expanded we’ve just kind of brought Banned Books Week along with us, but I really hope it’s always called Banned Books Week. I’m sure there are people who think we need to make that broader, but it’s catchy and it speaks to the history of what libraries have been doing in a really nice way.