Jennifer Petersen keeps 73 school books she detests in her basement.
She ordered most from Amazon. In the last year, she read each one. She highlighted and typed up excerpts from more than 1,300 pages - of the 24,000-plus pages she read - that she says depict sexual acts. Then she filed challenges against 71 of the books with Spotsylvania County Public Schools, the Virginia district where one of her children is a student and the other is a recent graduate. (Two books were removed before she could challenge them.)
Across 434 pages of challenges - longer than many of the books she objected to - Petersen offered variations on a theme.
“This book reads like a how to guide for raping teens,” she wrote of one.
“The book normalizes teen sex and . . . glorifies and incites teens to have sex,” she wrote of another.
“What is the fascination,” she asked of a third, “with so many of these books containing detailed sexual content?”
Petersen, 48, is part of a small army of book objectors nationwide. School book challenges reached historic highs in America in 2021 and 2022, according to the American Library Association. And just a handful of people are driving those records. A Washington Post analysis of thousands of challenges nationwide found that 60 percent of all challenges in the 2021-2022 school year came from 11 adults, each of whom objected to dozens — sometimes close to 100 — of books in their districts.
Petersen is one of these serial filers, whose actions have riven her community, earning her fervent admiration and criticism.
The majority of school book objections center on titles by or about LGBTQ individuals or people of color, The Post found. Petersen, though, has just one criterion by which she judges a book. Does it contain material that, under Virginia law, qualifies as sexually explicit, pornographic or obscene? Less than a third of the titles she challenged have LGBTQ characters or protagonists of color, according to a Post review of her objections, obtained through a records request from the Spotsylvania district.
Petersen’s district has lurched from one book controversy to another in recent years. In 2021, the Spotsylvania school board voted to remove sexually explicit tomes from libraries, with two members suggesting burning them - remarks that drew national scorn. The board later rescinded that decision. Then, this spring, the superintendent pulled 14 books for “sexually explicit material” - including Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” - and suggested shutting down school libraries to address budget shortfalls. That proposal went nowhere, but the school board voted to make it easier to yank books with sexual content.
Much of the turmoil has been driven, directly or indirectly, by Petersen. In the decades before she began filing challenges, the district saw almost no objections, maybe one every five to 10 years, library staff said. Now, in addition to her flurry of filings, Petersen attends almost every school board meeting, sometimes reading aloud graphic passages from the books she is challenging - mostly sentences too explicit to be printed in this newspaper.
She claims Spotsylvania had removed 36 of the books she objected to as of early September. A district spokesperson confirmed 35 such removals had taken place as of that date, including the superintendent’s 14. Eighteen titles were yanked by librarians before they could go through the review process, and another three were restricted to the high school level. Most of the other books Petersen challenged are now awaiting the superintendent’s review, the spokesperson said.
To some, Petersen is a fanatic bent on crushing schools under the weight of prudish objections.
“This whole effort has been a waste of money, time and resources,” school board member Nicole Cole said. (The district said it has not tracked the money, time and work it spent responding to Petersen’s requests, although a top library staffer estimated that a team of 11 people spent 40 hours per week on her challenges last school year.)
But to others, including some of the district’s top leaders, she is a hero. The superintendent, Mark Taylor, wrote in a statement that Petersen has “raised awareness” of sexually explicit content in his libraries. And at least a dozen Spotsylvania parents and area residents, spanning different ethnicities and religions, have coalesced around Petersen as their champion. They note that she is Buddhist, not the Christian fundamentalist some assume. They lament what they call the attacks Petersen has faced online and in person. They see her as a defender of children’s innocence.
“She sides with the side of the truth,” said Wanda Stroh, who has sent eight children through Spotsylvania schools. “Like a lion, she will protect everything that she believes in and holds dear.”
On a recent Tuesday, Petersen trailed a hand across the backs of her 73 verboten titles. She had gathered them together on a squat, black shelf.
“Boy Toy,” a teen romance that deals with abuse, sat next to “Red, White and Royal Blue,” which chronicles an international relationship between the son of an American president and the prince of England. Jodi Picoult’s “Nineteen Minutes,” a dark novel about a school shooting, nestled close by a collection of Allen Ginsberg poems. Every book bristled with dozens of pastel-colored sticky notes Petersen had pasted in to mark sexual content.
But the job was far from done. She walked to her living room and nodded to a low-slung, brown sofa. That, she said, is where she does her book reviewing. Petersen walked closer and pointed with an index finger to a concave, dark spot on the couch, about the size of someone sitting cross-legged.
“Yes,” she said. “That’s from all the reading.” In days and weeks to come, she would sit down and deepen it.
One year, 73 books
Petersen grew up hating books. A tomboy, she preferred to play with bugs and climb trees, she said. She found texts assigned at school, like the works of Shakespeare or snatches of Paradise Lost, mostly boring. The only book she remembers enjoying was Edgar Allan Poe’s collected stories, which she appreciated for their special creepiness.
That changed about 15 years ago, around the time Petersen’s daughter was born. Petersen had always loved Asian and Middle Eastern culture. When she spotted a novel with two Chinese sisters on the cover in a Ross Dress for Less store, she sat down with it and couldn’t stop reading. She finished the book, “Shanghai Girls” by Lisa See, in a day.
As her two children grew up, Petersen, who is a stay-at-home mom, found herself raising a reading family. They each have preferences: Her husband likes science fiction, as does her son. Her daughter prefers fantasies and tales with dragons. And Petersen generally sticks with Asian dramas and histories.
Peterson didn’t think about what books were available in schools until two years ago. She had begun attending school board meetings in 2020, first to protest pandemic school closures and then mandatory masking. At one meeting, parents she didn’t know rose to denounce the sexual content of two books: “33 Snowfish,” which tells the story of homeless teenagers, one of whom is a drug-addicted prostitute while another is on the run from a sexual abuser; and “Call Me By Your Name,” centered on a gay relationship.
Their speech spurred board member Rabih Abuismail to comment, “I think we should throw those books in a fire.” Another board member, Kirk Twigg, vowed that the board would begin “eradicating this bad stuff.”
Petersen, too, was alarmed. If children under 18 read about sex, she worries, they will be more likely to engage in unsafe sex or fall victim to sexual predators.
She understands children can find sexual material online. And she knows some parents think it’s okay for their teens to read sexually explicit books. But decisions about when and how to read about sex should be made within the family, she believes, and books with sex scenes certainly shouldn’t be available at school, making the lives of parents who want to preserve their kids’ innocence that much harder.
Most of all, she just doesn’t understand why schools need to stock books with graphic sex scenes, which she defines as anything beyond the “fade-to-black” moment in movies. She never found any such scenes in her school books growing up. She doesn’t think steamy or violent sex acts are educational. She has always kept her children from reading books with material like that.
So when she heard about “33 Snowfish,” she decided to investigate just what, exactly, was available in her children’s schools. She found a host of other concerning books - some of which she identified by checking Spotsylvania’s catalogue against lists of most-challenged titles maintained by groups like the American Library Association, known as ALA.
“It was like, ‘Oh, wait, the ALA has a list of banned books.’ ‘So PEN America keeps a list,’” Petersen said. “It was pretty easy, between social media, regular news media and professional organizations,” to find her targets.
At first, her plan was just to read aloud sex scenes from books at school board meetings. She felt confident that, if other adults had to hear the graphic details included in books meant for schoolchildren, they would agree the titles had to go. Instead, dozens of parents, students and teachers spoke up to defend books like “33 Snowfish,” calling them vital to entertaining and informing kids in a diverse society.
Gina Terry, a parent and former Spotsylvania English teacher, said in an interview that sexually explicit material is not always harmful - instead, it can be educational. She gave the example of “Sold,” a book told from the perspective of a 13-year-old girl sold into sexual slavery. Terry praised the writing as “haunting,” although she acknowledged the text deals with complex, difficult and dark subjects.
“There is absolutely discomfort. But the whole point of the book is to bring attention to the real plight of real girls,” Terry said. “By saying it needs to be banned, we’ve taken these real stories about real people and denied them existence on our shelves.”
Petersen thought it was better to let people learn about such things after they had come of age. But she was disappointed to find school officials nonresponsive to her concerns: They kept noting that no one had formally challenged any titles in Spotsylvania, she said.
So she started filing challenges.
Her first seven arrived on May 1, 2022. Among her targets were “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about growing up Black and LGBTQ; “Beloved,” Morrison’s acclaimed novel about slavery; and “Sold.” Petersen had read each title, marking sexual passages in yellow highlighter before sticking pink, green, blue and yellow Post-it Notes onto highlighted pages - the same method she used to study at the University of Central Florida, where she majored in psychology.
The early challenges struck the same notes that would ring through Petersen’s next 64 objections.
For some titles, she tallied the number of curse words, including language describing human genitalia. For each, she wrote out a short plot summary; eventually, she would write 6,556 words of such synopses. She carefully listed every page she found objectionable. Over the next 14 months, she would identify 1,335 pages as problematic, about 5.5 percent of the 24,172 pages she read.
Petersen read five books a month. The vast majority, she said, she found disgusting.
In that first batch, she wrote of Beloved: “The book illustrates the horrors of our history. However, the passages outlined do not add to the story and they are sexually explicit.”
In some challenges, she cited scientific research to back up her contention children could be harmed by reading about sex acts - in particular a 2020 paper she found in the National Institutes of Health’s online library that said “exposure to sexually explicit media in early adolescence had a substantive relationship with risky sexual behavior” in early adulthood.
In that study, the authors suggested one solution would be for schoolteachers and parents to provide teens with “appropriate information on sexuality,” including sex education classes. Another NIH study published two years later found that exposure to sexually explicit material made some boys happy and upset some girls, but “the majority of adolescents felt neutral, which suggests that seeing sexually explicit materials is not as distressing as originally thought.”
Thousands to go
At a school board meeting on Jan. 9 of this year, 52 book challenges in, Petersen walked to the podium and started reading aloud from “Me and Earl and the Dying Girl,” a book about three high school friends, one of whom has leukemia. Petersen had filed an objection to the book two months earlier for graphic, inappropriate content.
She had just finished reciting a passage in which characters discuss how to “eat p---y” and “butthole” - and started on an oral sex scene from another book called “Dead End” - when a school board member, Lorita C. Daniels, interjected and asked for a “point of order,” adding, “I just cannot sit here and listen to that.”
Twigg, one of the board members who proposed burning books, jumped in to defend Petersen: “There should be no interference by the public to hear what their children have an opportunity, without their knowledge even, to obtain. So we have to hear this out.”
Within seconds, the meeting devolved into a shouting match between school board members and people in the audience, including Petersen, who at one point yelled, “It’s in our schools! . . . You oversee these schools!” After the chaos led to a brief recess, board member Cole asked the board to vote on whether “what Ms. Petersen is reading out loud . . . is offensive and therefore breaks the rules of decorum.” But the board’s conservative majority overruled her.
To Petersen, it was a moment of triumph: School board members’ discomfort was proof the books should not be in school libraries, she felt.
To Cole and other school officials, it was yet more evidence of how Petersen is disrupting the district.
Cole said the district has lost staff members because of what Petersen is doing, although she could not provide an exact number. The district did not answer questions asking about Petersen’s effect on its personnel.
Kimberly Allen, library liaison and high school librarian for the district, estimates that, last school year, fielding Petersen’s challenges required 4o hours of labor per week from her and a team of 10 high school librarians, work they mostly did on their own time, late in the evening and on weekends, because they still had to keep up with their regular jobs. Neither she nor her colleagues received overtime pay, Allen said.
Per school district policy, each challenge at a campus required the principal, sometimes working with librarians, to form a school-level review committee comprising a half-dozen teachers and parents. Each committee recommended keeping the titles, Allen said.
But Petersen appealed every decision, leading to the formation of a second, district-level review committee, comprising another handful of teachers and parents - these selected by the Office of Teaching and Learning. Those panels, too, recommended keeping the books.
The superintendent has the final say: He intervened to pull 14 books this spring. Another 29 books await his verdict. (Five are still at the district committee stage.) So far, none of Petersen’s challenges has been rejected outright.
Then there are the 18 books Petersen challenged that librarians pulled before they could go through the review process, Allen said. She said those books were removed as part of routine winnowing, some because of lack of interest, others for being outdated or in poor condition, and a handful for - yes - sexual or age-inappropriate content. Allen said she herself weeded out two books Petersen identified as problematic, “Anatomy of a Boyfriend” and “Anatomy of a Single Girl,” both teen romance novels, because “they were too mature, too adult for high school.”
But that does not mean Allen agrees with Petersen. In “most of the books [she challenged], we do not agree with her assessment, because . . . you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts,” Allen said. “She is weighing the whole book on single passages.”
Allen said that, among school librarians, Petersen “is not popular.” She added: “Maybe she’s a good person, doing this for the right reasons. But she’s doing it the wrong way.”
Elsewhere, though, she has earned a strong core of supportive admirers.
She gained two best friends: Stroh, the mother of eight, and Jessica Rohrabacher, 42, a devout Christian with two children, one an attendee and one a graduate of Spotsylvania schools. They each found Petersen through her advocacy at board meetings. The three women have formed a book challenge support group. Stroh and Rohrabacher accompany Petersen to board meetings. She also regularly texts or calls the other two - sometimes past midnight - to ask their advice on whether something qualifies as sexually explicit. Or just for company, as she wades through an especially dark book.
“She means the world to me,” Rohrabacher said. “She’s been my rock.”
Stroh said: “We have relied on her strength to come out there for the past two years, day in and day out. But I also see on a personal level the fragility . . . sometimes she’s at her breaking point.”
Petersen said she faces harassment online, including dozens of insulting messages she shared with The Post. In one exchange, commenters called her a “witch” and a “boil” that needed lancing.
But she has no intention of stopping.
Petersen will keep filing challenges “as long as it takes . . . to get the sexually explicit books out,” she said. “To make it so that they cannot come back.”
Hannah Natanson is a Washington Post reporter covering national K-12 education.