Photo by Paul Cymrot

What Has Spotsylvania County Done with All Those Books They Banned?

By Steve Watkins

First, in March 2023, a Spotsylvania County, Virginia, public schools spokesperson announced that all copies of the first 14 books banned from school libraries and removed from the shelves would be donated to the Central Rappahannock Regional Library, headquartered in nearby Fredericksburg. 

That didn’t happen.

Then, on Dec. 20, 2023, in an email to a Spotsy resident who had spent months trying to find out what was being done with copies of the by-then 37 titles the school administration had ordered banned and removed from the libraries, School Superintendent Mark Taylor wrote: “The information provided to me is that all books removed from Spotsylvania County Public Schools’ libraries were marked as surplus and donated to James Madison Regional Library in Charlottesville.”

That didn’t happen either. 

Jefferson-Madison Regional Library Director David Plunkett says neither the library system there nor the JMRL Friends of the Library has received any inquiries or book donations from Spotsylvania County Public Schools.

Moreover, the JMRL Friends website states, in bold type, that first among the books they don’t accept are “School or Public Library Discards.”

Superintendent Taylor’s administrative aide, a teenager named Dante Braden who was assigned to answer questions about the missing books, said Spotsy’s executive director of operations, Kenny Forrest, approved the surplus designation and set the value for the books at less than $500. Neither Forrest nor Braden has yet responded to questions about how many copies of the 37 books were removed from the library shelves, or how Forrest came up with the amount he determined they were worth.

Paul Cymrot, owner of Riverby Books in Fredericksburg and an outspoken critic of the book banning, has been monitoring the book controversy in Spotsylvania, and says he’s been told by members of Spotsy schools staff that a total of at least 249 copies of the 37 banned titles have been removed from the school libraries, with more still under review. A used book dealer for more than 20 years, Cymrot estimated that the average retail value of the books would be $10 each, for a value closer to $2,500. The list of banned books included works by bestselling and critically acclaimed authors including Toni Morrison, John Green, Jodi Picoult, and Patricia McCormick. All were removed from Spotsy school libraries after challenges by one county resident.

For any surplus items valued at more than $500, official Spotsylvania schools policy requires “formal authorization for negotiated sale or for putting the items to bid” from the elected School Board. Outgoing School Board member Dawn Shelley said the fate of the banned books has never been brought before the board for discussion.

Braden, the administrative aide and a 2022 graduate of Massaponax High School, said that Jon Russell, the superintendent’s recently departed chief of staff, was the one who either took the books, or had them taken, to the Northside Branch of the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library. Braden didn’t provide an explanation for why JMRL has no record of any donation by Russell or Spotsy schools.

And so far, neither Forrest nor Braden has responded to inquiries about any confirmation/receipt Russell or his designee would presumably have requested and been given for any books they may have donated.

There are also open questions about the appropriateness, and possibly the legality, of donating the books. Spotsy school system policy (specifically SCS Policy DN), a copy of which was provided by Braden, requires that surplus equipment with no trade-in value be disposed of “by informal bid, auction or pre-priced sale as appropriate to the public through the services of Gov.Deals.” 

Meanwhile, Russell, the former chief of staff, says he signed a nondisclosure agreement when he left his Spotsylvania schools position in early December and can’t answer any questions about the missing books. “I’m sorry,” he said when contacted at his home in Culpeper, where he operates a charity rodeo, runs a boxing gym, and serves on the Town Council. “I signed that agreement and I can’t talk about anything to do with the school system.” 

Russell, who resigned from his $112,000-a-year job after less than a year, said that Braden, a part-time employee who makes $20 an hour, would be the best person to talk to about the book situation. Russell refused to answer any other questions over the phone and hung up abruptly.

At least one School Board member, Nicole Cole, says an NDA wouldn’t bar Russell from talking about his former job. “It’s my understanding that the nondisclosure does not prevent Russell from answering inquiries about performance of his job duties while he was an employee,” she said. “It only prevents him from speaking badly about the school division, school board members, employees. He is clearly trying to abdicate his specific responsibility for proper handling of the books that were removed.” 

Braden, the administrative aide, altered his response after being informed in a phone interview that the Jefferson-Madison Regional Library had no record of a book donation from Spotsylvania Schools—and that the JMRL Friends of the Library had no record of any such donation either. 

“It appears the books were donated to the library’s ‘Friends of the Library Book Sale’ at the Northside Library,” he wrote in a follow-up email on Dec. 21.

Though asked, Braden didn’t disclose the source of that information—whether it was Russell or someone else in Spotsy schools administration. According to Cole, Braden currently occupies Russell’s chief of staff office, has his name on the former chief of staff’s door, and takes calls on Russell’s phone.

The reference librarian at the JMRL Northside branch, meanwhile, said any books left there at any time would have been forwarded to the system’s Gordon Avenue Branch, where the Friends of the Library is located. The Friends of the Library Fall Book Sale was held Oct. 7-15 in Albemarle Square in Charlottesville in a shopping center space that once housed the Northside Branch, though the Northside Branch moved from there to its current location in 2015.

Spotsylvania schools administrators didn’t announce until the night of Oct. 9, 2023—almost halfway through the JMRL book sale in Charlottesville—that they were adding 23 more titles to their banned book list and that all copies of those books, along with the 14 other titles banned back in March, would be removed from the county school libraries.

Mark Taylor, the school superintendent, now says he won’t answer any more questions about the missing books. “I have shared all the information that I have on the book donations,” he wrote in an email on Dec. 22 sent to the Spotsy resident inquiring about the banned books, to outgoing School Board member Shelley, and to current member Cole. “By a copy of this email, I am passing on your inquiries to [Administrative Services Director] Dennis Martin and I expect he will address them in his capacity as SCPS FOIA [Freedom of Information Act] officer.”

Cole, who hopes the new moderate School Board majority will vote to “un-ban” the 37 forbidden titles at their first meeting in January, said she also plans to pursue the matter of the missing books and what appears to have been circumvention of Spotsy schools policy. “Someone will be held accountable for the ‘disposal’ of these books,” she said in an email, “and it will start at the Superintendent who is accountable to the school board for oversight and proper management of the division as is his express job.” 

The book controversy in Spotsylvania began in late 2021 when two members of the School Board, Rabih Abuismail and Kirk Twigg, advocated burning library books that they deemed offensive due to “sexually explicit” content. Those books and others were later ordered taken out of circulation and removed from the library shelves by Superintendent Taylor.

If Jon Russell or someone acting on his behalf disposed of Spotsylvania’s banned books by dropping them off at a Jefferson-Madison Friends of the Library collection site, it seems unlikely, given the Friends’ stated policy, that the books would have been included in the fall book sale or added into circulation at any of the Charlottesville area libraries. 

On their website, the JMRL Friends of the Library says that book donations they can’t use are offered to “schools, institutions, self-help groups, etc.”; given out to individuals through the library branches’ free book boxes; or “ecologically recycled,” which is another way of saying “pulped.”


Here is the list of the 37 banned books that can no longer be found in the Spotsylvania County Public School libraries:

  • Homegoing by Yaa Gyasi
  • Thirteen Reasons Why by Jay Asher
  • All Boys Aren’t Blue by George M. Johnson
  • Like a Love Story by Abdi Nazemian
  • Dime and America by E.R. Frank
  • Sold by Patricia McCormick
  • Out of Darkness by Ashley Hope Perez
  • Beloved, The Bluest Eye and Song of Solomon by Toni Morrison
  • Looking for Alaska by John Green
  • The Perks of Being a Wallflower by Stephen Chbosky
  • Water for Elephants by Sara Gruen
  • Neanderthal Opens the Door to the Universe by Preston Norton
  • More Happy Than Not by Adam Silvera
  • Nineteen Minutes by Jodi Picoult
  • The Nowhere Girls by Amy Reed
  • Crank by Ellen Hopkins
  • All the Things We Do in the Dark by Saundra Mitchell
  • Chosen: A House of Night Novel by P.C. Cast and Kristin Cast
  • Damsel by Elana Arnold
  • Shine by Lauren Myracle
  • Deogratias—A Tale of Rwanda by J.P. Stassen
  • Breathless by Jennifer Niven
  • Real Live Boyfriends by E. Lockhart
  • The Duff by Kody Keplinger
  • Odd One Out by Nic Stone
  • The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein
  • Little & Lion by Brandy Colbert
  • Speak —The Graphic Novel and Twisted by Laurie Halse Anderson
  • Monday’s Not Coming by Tiffany D. Jackson
  • You Too? by Janet Gurtler (Editor)
  • Girl in Translation by Jean Kwok
  • Fade by Lisa McMann
  • Me, Earl, and the Dying Girl by Jesse Andrews


Steve Watkins is co-founder and editor of PIE & CHAI, a professor emeritus of English, a longtime tree steward with Tree Fredericksburg, an inveterate dog walker, a recovering yoga teacher and co-founder of two yoga businesses, father of four daughters, grandfather of four grandsons, and author of 15 books, two of which are forthcoming in 2024. His author website is