Mum responsible for countless banned books vows to keep up campaign ‘as long as it takes’

Jennifer Petersen poses for a portrait in front of 73 children's books that she's read in the course of a year. The Virginia mum has filed challenges against dozens of books as efforts to ban certain books increased across the US

A Virginia woman who is among the small number of people leading the charge against LGBTQ+ books and other inclusive novels in US schools, has said she won’t stop until she gets all the “sexually explicit books out”. 

Book bans in US schools and public libraries have increased exponentially in recent years as conservative activists, parental groups and right-wing pundits attack inclusive literature. Such bans usually target books featuring LGBTQ+ characters or characters of colour, and books that discuss racism, sexuality and gender identity. 

A Washington Post analysis of the challenges filed nationwide found that 11 adults were responsible for 60 per cent of all requests during the 2021-2022 school year. 

Jennifer Petersen is one of this small army of serial objectors in the US, having filed challenges against 71 books in Virginia’s Spotsylvania County Public Schools district.

The 48-year-old particularly targeted books that she believes depict sexual acts. 

The stay-at-home mum told the Washington Post that she was worried children could be more likely to engage in sex if they read about it, and has made it her mission to ensure that books with sexual content shouldn’t be available at school.

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So she decided to investigate what titles were available at her children’s schools against lists of most-challenged titles created by groups like the American Library Association (ALA) and PEN America. 

“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 organisations,” to find her targets.

She said certain passages in Toni Morrison’s Beloved, which vividly portrays the horrors of slavery and its legacy, “do not add to the story” because they are “sexually explicit”. 

LGBTQ+ and other inclusive literature hasn’t avoided her wrath as just under a third of the books she challenged have queer characters or characters of colour, the Washington Post reported. 

She has taken issue with Casey McQuiston’s bestselling queer romance novel Red, White & Royal Blue and a collection of poems by Allen Ginsberg, who was gay. 

Spotsylvania County a hotbed of book bans

In 2021, two members of the Spotsylvania County School board advocated for banning and burning some LGBTQ-themed school library books

Earlier this year, superintendent Mark Taylor ordered the removal of 14 books from school libraries, including two by Pulitzer Prize-winning author Toni Morrison, for containing “sexually explicit material”.

Two people hold up signs reading 'Give back the books' and 'Books not bonfires' after two Spotsylvania County Public Schools advocated for banning and burning LGBTQ-inclusive books
Spotsylvania County Public Schools gained worldwide media attention after two officials advocated for burning some LGBTQ-themed school library books. (YouTube/WUSA9)

Other books targeted included George M Johnson’s queer book All Boys Aren’t Blue and More Happy Than Not by LGBTQ+ author Adam Silvera.

Petersen said she’s faced harassment online, including being called a “witch” and a “boil”, for pushing book bans in the district. But she has no plans to stop any time soon.

Petersen will keep filing book challenges “as long as it takes … to get the sexually explicit books out,” she said. “To make it so that they cannot come back.”

Kimberly Allen, library liaison and high school librarian for the district, said her and her team of 10 high school librarians didn’t “agree with [Petersen’s] assessment” on most of the books she challenged because “you cannot base the merit of a book on just its parts”.

The library liaison added that Petersen isn’t “popular” among school librarians. She estimated that her team spent 40 hours of labour per week fielding Petersen’s book challenges last school year.