According to Howard County school officials, an average of five books a year are challenged by parents who think the works aren't appropriate for students. This is shaping up as something other than an average school year.

Since September, the system's Criteria Review Committee has evaluated five books questioned by parents. It kept all five.

Two weeks ago, the committee announced that the schools would keep "The Visitors Who Came to Stay," by Annalena McAfee and Anthony Browne. Some parents had complained that some of the picture book's illustrations -- one of which showed a man sitting on a toilet -- were offensive. But the committee decided that "although the ideograms may not be to everyone's taste, they reflect a British humor that is acceptable by today's standards."

Other books reviewed by the committee this school year were: "The Devil Did It," by Susan Jeschke; "The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," by C.S. Lewis; "Kids Having Kids: The Unwed Teenage Parent," by Janet Bode; and "Curses, Hexes and Spells," by Daniel Cohen.

Partly because of intense news media coverage, the book challenges brought cries of censorship from many Howard County residents, about 100 of whom signed and sent a petition to school officials, expressing "alarm."

"If every interest group in Howard County starts requesting removal of materials which do not agree with its particular philosophy," the petition said in part, "we could end up with a very diluted curriculum and reference library in our schools."

But Celeste Smalkin, supervisor of the system's media services, said requests for evaluation of textbooks and library books aren't unusual.

"It's something that goes on all the time, especially at the elementary level," Smalkin said. "The only thing that's been unusual is how much attention it has gotten."

Smalkin said the committee last rejected a book about 10 years ago, because it contained racial slurs.

To have a book reviewed by the committee, a parent fills out a form detailing the complaint. After the form is given to the principal of the school where the material is used, the Criteria Review Committee evaluates the book.

Supervisors of the departments in which the books are used oversee the review process. Because all the publications challenged this year were in library media centers, Smalkin has been involved with the examination of each of them.

Smalkin said it is rare for the Criteria Review Committee -- which consists of six teachers, six other adults and two students -- to categorically reject a book that is questioned. In fact, the committee made unanimous rulings on three of the books reviewed this year.

On the most controversial of the five works reviewed, Cohen's "Curses, Hexes and Spells," the committee voted 8 to 5 to keep the book in middle and high schools and to remove it from elementary schools.

Smalkin said "Curses, Hexes and Spells" gives a basic history of those three topics, and is written tongue-in-cheek. "We decided that it really could be misunderstood," she said.

The other book that didn't receive unanimous clearance was "The Devil Did It," which is about a little girl who is visited by a demon. After the girl gives the demon milk and cookies, it leaves her alone.

Lena Herlihy, a Columbia parent with three children in public elementary schools, said the book's message was "that one should make friends with the devil. I strongly disagree with the idea that the devil is a friendly force."

In an 11 to 2 decision, the committee's members ruled that the book was attempting to portray the triumph of good over evil.

Herlihy said she was disappointed by the decision, saying, "It's a difference of opinion and of interpretations." She said was surprised at how much public attention her challenge had received: "All I wanted was someone else's opinion . . . . I got more than I bargained for."

"The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe," Lewis's classic fairy tale, was attacked by Michael C. Van Allen, of Elkridge, as being full of "graphic violence, mysticism and gore." The committee contended that the book was "appropriate for any age level."

"Kids Having Kids" was criticized by several parents as being inappropriate reading for young children. The committee disagreed, extolling the work for its "informative, nonjudgmental and realistic treatment of the subject."