A majority of college e book challenges got here from simply 11 folks. This Virginia mother says she’ll by no means cease.

Nationwide Information

Petersen in her home, holding up the book "Boy Toy," a teen romance that deals with abuse.
Petersen in her residence, holding up the e book “Boy Toy,” a teen romance that offers with abuse. Photograph for The Washington Publish by Julia Nikhinson

Jennifer Petersen retains 73 college books she detests in her basement.

She ordered most from Amazon. Within the final 12 months, she learn every one. She highlighted and typed up excerpts from greater than 1,300 pages – of the 24,000-plus pages she learn – that she says depict sexual acts. Then she filed challenges towards 71 of the books with Spotsylvania County Public Faculties, the Virginia district the place one among her youngsters is a scholar and the opposite is a latest graduate. (Two books had been eliminated earlier than she may problem them.)

Throughout 434 pages of challenges – longer than most of the books she objected to – Petersen provided variations on a theme.

“This e book reads like a easy methods to information for raping teenagers,” she wrote of 1.

“The e book normalizes teen intercourse and . . . glorifies and incites teenagers to have intercourse,” she wrote of one other.

“What’s the fascination,” she requested of a 3rd, “with so many of those books containing detailed sexual content material?”

Jennifer Petersen
As of February, Jennifer Petersen had challenged 73 college books. – Photograph for The Washington Publish by Julia Nikhinson

Petersen, 48, is a part of a small military of e book objectors nationwide. College e book challenges reached historic highs in America in 2021 and 2022, in keeping with the American Library Affiliation. And only a handful of individuals are driving these information. A Washington Publish evaluation of 1000’s of challenges nationwide discovered that 60 % of all challenges within the 2021-2022 college 12 months got here from 11 adults, every of whom objected to dozens – typically near 100 – of books of their districts.

Petersen is one among these serial filers, whose actions have riven her group, incomes her fervent admiration and criticism.

The vast majority of college e book objections middle on titles by or about LGBTQ people or folks of colour, The Publish discovered. Petersen, although, has only one criterion by which she judges a e book. Does it comprise materials that, underneath Virginia regulation, qualifies as sexually express, pornographic or obscene? Lower than a 3rd of the titles she challenged have LGBTQ characters or protagonists of colour, in keeping with a Publish evaluation of her objections, obtained by way of a information request from the Spotsylvania district.

Petersen’s district has lurched from one e book controversy to a different in recent times. In 2021, the Spotsylvania college board voted to take away sexually express tomes from libraries, with two members suggesting burning them – remarks that drew nationwide scorn. The board later rescinded that call. Then, this spring, the superintendent pulled 14 books for “sexually express materials” – together with Toni Morrison’s “Beloved” – and urged shutting down college libraries to handle price range shortfalls. That proposal went nowhere, however the college board voted to make it simpler to yank books with sexual content material.

Jennifer Petersen holds a stack of books with sticky notes on various pages that she has read, flagged for sexual content, and challenged in Spotsylvania County Public Schools.
Jennifer Petersen holds a stack of books that she has learn, flagged for sexual content material and challenged in Spotsylvania County Public Faculties. – Photograph for The Washington Publish by Julia Nikhinson

A lot of the turmoil has been pushed, immediately or not directly, by Petersen. Within the many years earlier than she started submitting challenges, the district noticed virtually no objections, perhaps one each 5 to 10 years, library workers stated. Now, along with her flurry of filings, Petersen attends virtually each college board assembly, typically studying aloud graphic passages from the books she is difficult – largely sentences too express to be printed on this newspaper.

She claims Spotsylvania had eliminated 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, together with the superintendent’s 14. Eighteen titles had been yanked by librarians earlier than they may undergo the evaluation course of, and one other three had been restricted to the highschool degree. Many of the different books Petersen challenged at the moment are awaiting the superintendent’s evaluation, the spokesperson stated.

To some, Petersen is a fanatic bent on crushing colleges underneath the load of prudish objections.

“This complete effort has been a waste of cash, time and sources,” college board member Nicole Cole stated. (The district stated it has not tracked the cash, time and work it spent responding to Petersen’s requests, though a high library staffer estimated {that a} crew of 11 folks spent 40 hours per week on her challenges final college 12 months.)

  • Books are displayed at the Banned Book Library at American Stage in St. Petersburg, Fla., Feb. 18, 2023.

    Readers are involved about assaults on free speech. Right here’s why.

However to others, together with a few of the district’s high leaders, she is a hero. The superintendent, Mark Taylor, wrote in an announcement that Petersen has “raised consciousness” of sexually express content material in his libraries. And not less than a dozen Spotsylvania mother and father and space residents, spanning completely different ethnicities and religions, have coalesced round Petersen as their champion. They observe that she is Buddhist, not the Christian fundamentalist some assume. They lament what they name the assaults Petersen has confronted on-line and in individual. They see her as a defender of youngsters’s innocence.

“She sides with the facet of the reality,” stated Wanda Stroh, who has despatched eight youngsters by way of Spotsylvania colleges. “Like a lion, she is going to defend all the pieces that she believes in and holds expensive.”

On a latest Tuesday, Petersen trailed a hand throughout the backs of her 73 verboten titles. She had gathered them collectively on a squat, black shelf.

“Boy Toy,” a teen romance that offers with abuse, sat subsequent to “Crimson, White and Royal Blue,” which chronicles a global relationship between the son of an American president and the prince of England. Jodi Picoult’s “Nineteen Minutes,” a darkish novel a couple of college capturing, nestled shut by a group of Allen Ginsberg poems. Each e book bristled with dozens of pastel-colored sticky notes Petersen had pasted in to mark sexual content material.

However the job was removed from achieved. She walked to her lounge and nodded to a low-slung, brown couch. That, she stated, is the place she does her e book reviewing. Petersen walked nearer and pointed with an index finger to a concave, darkish spot on the sofa, concerning the measurement of somebody sitting cross-legged.

“Sure,” she stated. “That’s from all of the studying.” In days and weeks to return, she would sit down and deepen it.

One 12 months, 73 books

Petersen grew up hating books. A tomboy, she most popular to play with bugs and climb timber, she stated. She discovered texts assigned in school, just like the works of Shakespeare or snatches of Paradise Misplaced, largely boring. The one e book she remembers having fun with was Edgar Allan Poe’s collected tales, which she appreciated for his or her particular creepiness.

That modified about 15 years in the past, across the time Petersen’s daughter was born. Petersen had all the time cherished Asian and Center Japanese tradition. When she noticed a novel with two Chinese language sisters on the duvet in a Ross Costume for Much less retailer, she sat down with it and couldn’t cease studying. She completed the e book, “Shanghai Ladies” by Lisa See, in a day.

As her two youngsters grew up, Petersen, who’s a stay-at-home mother, discovered herself elevating a studying household. They every have preferences: Her husband likes science fiction, as does her son. Her daughter prefers fantasies and tales with dragons. And Petersen usually sticks with Asian dramas and histories.

Peterson didn’t take into consideration what books had been out there in colleges till two years in the past. She had begun attending college board conferences in 2020, first to protest pandemic college closures after which necessary masking. At one assembly, mother and father she didn’t know rose to denounce the sexual content material of two books: “33 Snowfish,” which tells the story of homeless youngsters, one among whom is a drug-addicted prostitute whereas one other is on the run from a sexual abuser; and “Name Me By Your Identify,” centered on a homosexual relationship.

Their speech spurred board member Rabih Abuismail to remark, “I believe we should always throw these books in a hearth.” One other board member, Kirk Twigg, vowed that the board would start “eradicating this dangerous stuff.”

Petersen, too, was alarmed. If youngsters underneath 18 examine intercourse, she worries, they are going to be extra more likely to interact in unsafe intercourse or fall sufferer to sexual predators.

She understands youngsters can discover sexual materials on-line. And he or she is aware of some mother and father assume it’s okay for his or her teenagers to learn sexually express books. However selections about when and easy methods to examine intercourse must be made throughout the household, she believes, and books with intercourse scenes definitely shouldn’t be out there in school, making the lives of oldsters who wish to protect their youngsters’ innocence that a lot more durable.

Petersen marks up books like this one -
Petersen marks up books like this one – “Oryx and Crake” – utilizing the identical examine strategies she employed in faculty. – Photograph for The Washington Publish by Julia Nikhinson

Most of all, she simply doesn’t perceive why colleges must inventory books with graphic intercourse scenes, which she defines as something past the “fade-to-black” second in motion pictures. She by no means discovered any such scenes in her college books rising up. She doesn’t assume steamy or violent intercourse acts are instructional. She has all the time saved her youngsters from studying books with materials like that.

So when she heard about “33 Snowfish,” she determined to analyze simply what, precisely, was out there in her youngsters’s colleges. She discovered a bunch of different regarding books – a few of which she recognized by checking Spotsylvania’s catalogue towards lists of most-challenged titles maintained by teams just like the American Library Affiliation, often known as ALA.

“It was like, ‘Oh, wait, the ALA has an inventory of banned books.’ ‘So PEN America retains an inventory,’” Petersen stated. “It was fairly straightforward, between social media, common information media {and professional} organizations,” to search out her targets.

At first, her plan was simply to learn aloud intercourse scenes from books in school board conferences. She felt assured that, if different adults needed to hear the graphic particulars included in books meant for schoolchildren, they might agree the titles needed to go. As a substitute, dozens of oldsters, college students and academics spoke as much as defend books like “33 Snowfish,” calling them important to entertaining and informing youngsters in a various society.

Gina Terry, a dad or mum and former Spotsylvania English instructor, stated in an interview that sexually express materials is just not all the time dangerous – as an alternative, it may be instructional. She gave the instance of “Offered,” a e book instructed from the angle of a 13-year-old woman offered into sexual slavery. Terry praised the writing as “haunting,” though she acknowledged the textual content offers with advanced, troublesome and darkish topics.

“There may be completely discomfort. However the entire level of the e book is to convey consideration to the actual plight of actual women,” Terry stated. “By saying it must be banned, we’ve taken these actual tales about actual folks and denied them existence on our cabinets.”

Petersen thought it was higher to let folks study such issues after that they had come of age. However she was disenchanted to search out college officers nonresponsive to her issues: They saved noting that nobody had formally challenged any titles in Spotsylvania, she stated.

So she began submitting challenges.

Her first seven arrived on Might 1, 2022. Amongst her targets had been “All Boys Aren’t Blue,” a memoir about rising up Black and LGBTQ; “Beloved,” Morrison’s acclaimed novel about slavery; and “Offered.” Petersen had learn every title, marking sexual passages in yellow highlighter earlier than sticking pink, inexperienced, blue and yellow Publish-it Notes onto highlighted pages – the identical technique she used to check on the College of Central Florida, the place she majored in psychology.

The early challenges struck the identical notes that might ring by way of Petersen’s subsequent 64 objections.

Petersen uses a spreadsheet to track her book challenges.
Petersen makes use of a spreadsheet to trace her e book challenges. – Photograph for The Washington Publish by Julia Nikhinson

For some titles, she tallied the variety of curse phrases, together with language describing human genitalia. For every, she wrote out a brief plot abstract; finally, she would write 6,556 phrases of such synopses. She fastidiously listed each web page she discovered objectionable. Over the following 14 months, she would determine 1,335 pages as problematic, about 5.5 % of the 24,172 pages she learn.

Petersen learn 5 books a month. The overwhelming majority, she stated, she discovered disgusting.

In that first batch, she wrote of Beloved: “The e book illustrates the horrors of our historical past. Nevertheless, the passages outlined don’t add to the story and they’re sexually express.”

In some challenges, she cited scientific analysis to again up her rivalry youngsters might be harmed by studying about intercourse acts – particularly a 2020 paper she discovered within the Nationwide Institutes of Well being’s on-line library that stated “publicity to sexually express media in early adolescence had a substantive relationship with dangerous sexual habits” in early maturity.

In that examine, the authors urged one answer can be for schoolteachers and oldsters to supply teenagers with “applicable data on sexuality,” together with intercourse schooling courses. One other NIH examine revealed two years later discovered that publicity to sexually express materials made some boys completely happy and upset some women, however “the vast majority of adolescents felt impartial, which means that seeing sexually express supplies is just not as distressing as initially thought.”

1000’s to go

At a college board assembly on Jan. 9 of this 12 months, 52 e book challenges in, Petersen walked to the rostrum and began studying aloud from “Me and Earl and the Dying Woman,” a e book about three highschool pals, one among whom has leukemia. Petersen had filed an objection to the e book two months earlier for graphic, inappropriate content material.

Petersen keeps a newspaper clipping about her book challenge campaign on her fridge.
Petersen retains a newspaper clipping about her e book problem marketing campaign on her fridge. – Photograph for The Washington Publish by Julia Nikhinson

She had simply completed reciting a passage through which characters talk about easy methods to “eat p—y” and “butthole” – and began on an oral intercourse scene from one other e book referred to as “Lifeless Finish” – when a college board member, Lorita C. Daniels, interjected and requested for a “level of order,” including, “I simply can’t sit right here and hearken to that.”

Twigg, one of many board members who proposed burning books, jumped in to defend Petersen: “There must be no interference by the general public to listen to what their youngsters have a possibility, with out their information even, to acquire. So we now have to listen to this out.”

Inside seconds, the assembly devolved right into a shouting match between college board members and folks within the viewers, together with Petersen, who at one level yelled, “It’s in our colleges! . . . You oversee these colleges!” After the chaos led to a quick recess, board member Cole requested the board to vote on whether or not “what Ms. Petersen is studying out loud . . . is offensive and due to this fact breaks the principles of decorum.” However the board’s conservative majority overruled her.

To Petersen, it was a second of triumph: College board members’ discomfort was proof the books shouldn’t be at school libraries, she felt.

To Cole and different college officers, it was but extra proof of how Petersen is disrupting the district.

Cole stated the district has misplaced workers members due to what Petersen is doing, though she couldn’t present an actual quantity. The district didn’t reply questions asking about Petersen’s impact on its personnel.

Kimberly Allen, library liaison and highschool librarian for the district, estimates that, final college 12 months, fielding Petersen’s challenges required 4o hours of labor per week from her and a crew of 10 highschool librarians, work they largely did on their very own time, late within the night and on weekends, as a result of they nonetheless needed to sustain with their common jobs. Neither she nor her colleagues acquired extra time pay, Allen stated.

Per college district coverage, every problem at a campus required the principal, typically working with librarians, to type a school-level evaluation committee comprising a half-dozen academics and oldsters. Every committee really useful conserving the titles, Allen stated.

However Petersen appealed each determination, resulting in the formation of a second, district-level evaluation committee, comprising one other handful of academics and oldsters – these chosen by the Workplace of Instructing and Studying. These panels, too, really useful conserving the books.

The superintendent has the ultimate say: He intervened to tug 14 books this spring. One other 29 books await his verdict. (5 are nonetheless on the district committee stage.) To date, none of Petersen’s challenges has been rejected outright.

Then there are the 18 books Petersen challenged that librarians pulled earlier than they may undergo the evaluation course of, Allen stated. She stated these books had been eliminated as a part of routine winnowing, some due to lack of curiosity, others for being outdated or in poor situation, and a handful for – sure – sexual or age-inappropriate content material. Allen stated she herself weeded out two books Petersen recognized as problematic, “Anatomy of a Boyfriend” and “Anatomy of a Single Woman,” each teen romance novels, as a result of “they had been too mature, too grownup for highschool.”

However that doesn’t imply Allen agrees with Petersen. In “a lot of the books [she challenged], we don’t agree together with her evaluation, as a result of . . . you can not base the advantage of a e book on simply its components,” Allen stated. “She is weighing the entire e book on single passages.”

Allen stated that, amongst college librarians, Petersen “is just not common.” She added: “Possibly she’s a superb individual, doing this for the appropriate causes. However she’s doing it the flawed approach.”

Jennifer Petersen speaks during the public comment section of the Spotsylvania school board meeting.
As has change into her common follow, Petersen speaks throughout the public remark part of the Spotsylvania college board assembly. – Photograph for The Washington Publish by Julia Nikhinson

Elsewhere, although, she has earned a powerful core of supportive admirers.

She gained two greatest pals: Stroh, the mom of eight, and Jessica Rohrabacher, 42, a religious Christian with two youngsters, one an attendee and one a graduate of Spotsylvania colleges. They every discovered Petersen by way of her advocacy at board conferences. The three ladies have fashioned a e book problem help group. Stroh and Rohrabacher accompany Petersen to board conferences. She additionally commonly texts or calls the opposite two – typically previous midnight – to ask their recommendation on whether or not one thing qualifies as sexually express. Or simply for firm, as she wades by way of an particularly darkish e book.

“She means the world to me,” Rohrabacher stated. “She’s been my rock.”

Stroh stated: “We’ve relied on her energy to return on the market for the previous two years, day in and day trip. However I additionally see on a private degree the fragility . . . typically she’s at her breaking level.”

Petersen stated she faces harassment on-line, together with dozens of insulting messages she shared with The Publish. In a single change, commenters referred to as her a “witch” and a “boil” that wanted lancing.

However she has no intention of stopping.

Petersen will preserve submitting challenges “so long as it takes . . . to get the sexually express books out,” she stated. “To make it in order that they can not come again.”