A Brentsville family's protest last week over three high school English books has sparked a debate among Stonewall Jackson High School families: Are sexually explicit novels such as Isabel Allende's "The House of the Spirits" and Gabriel Garcia Marquez's "One Hundred Years of Solitude" great works, appropriate for academically advanced teenagers? Or are they little more than literary pornography, which has no place in public schools?

Stonewall graduate Sarah Gluck, 18, called the novels "the two favorite books that I ever read in high school. They really turned me on to Latin American literature."

Elizabeth Becker, 17, now a senior in the school's International Baccalaureate (IB) program, which requires students to read the two books, said she "skipped the parts that I didn't feel were necessary."

"Most of them are about sex, a lot of rape and a lot of incest," Becker said. "I don't think that it should be required {reading}."

The debate began for the Smelsers, the Brentsville family spearheading the issue, in June 1996, when Amy Smelser received her summer reading list. Smelser was then 15 and a sophomore at Stonewall Jackson. The reading list was an entree into the IB program, an advanced series of courses for juniors and seniors, available worldwide at participating high schools. Stonewall hosts Prince William County's only IB program, and students across the county participate.

On the list was Zora Neale Hurston's "Their Eyes Were Watching God," a 1937 novel by a renowned black female writer. Smelser and her parents objected to the novel's language and sexually explicit scenes and requested permission -- which they were granted -- to substitute the assignment with another work by an African American. Smelser instead read Colin Powell's autobiography, "My American Journey."

But the issue arose again with the Latin American novels, which include detailed depictions of rape, bestiality and necrophilia.

Many consider "One Hundred Years of Solitude" the finest work of Nobel Prize winner Marquez and a masterpiece of 20th-century literature. President Clinton said he has read it numerous times, lists it among his favorites and once called it "a rhapsodic, mystical, marvelous work."

"The House of the Spirits" is a tale of three generations of a Chilean family. Its author, Allende, is the niece of ousted Chilean president Salvador Allende, and this work, like many of her others, decries oppressive governments, such as that of Augusto Pinochet's, the man who toppled her uncle. This book is widely considered her best work.

Unhappy with the reading assignments, the Smelsers began a series of meetings with teachers and administrators at Stonewall, which led to a July letter from Stonewall Principal Steve Constantino, supporting his staff's decision to adhere to the curriculum of the overseeing IB Organization and to not allow Amy Smelser or others to bypass or substitute the assigned works.

The Smelsers withdrew their daughter from the IB English program but simultaneously entered their son, Nathan, a freshman, into the preparatory portion of it. They began a public campaign to inform other parents of the reading material. Part of that campaign included Jeff Smelser's presence in the high school parking lot last week, distributing a packet of Allende excerpts with the heading, "Would you allow your 16 year old daughter to read this material? And if not, why should the public school be allowed to require my 16 year old daughter to read this material?"

School Superintendent Edward L. Kelly telephoned the Smelsers to tell them there is a formal appeal process for objecting to school material, and the Smelsers then delivered appeals on all three books to administrators. A Stonewall committee of parents, teachers and students must respond to the appeal within 30 days.

Samantha Husser, who's 16 and an IB junior, said she agrees with the Smelsers' position.

"There is a lot of explicit words and subjects, like within the first 20 pages," she said, referring to "The House of the Spirits." "I showed my mom, and she said that was it, she didn't want me reading it. . . . There's language in there that if I used at school I knew I would get in trouble, so I don't understand why we're reading it."

Just as movies have ratings to help steer parents' decisions, said her mother, Glenda Husser, so should school officials use reasoned judgment about which books are appropriate.

"I don't believe in censoring books, but I think there are books that are appropriate for this age group to read and books that are not," she said.

But Irene Gluck said that she, like her daughter Sarah, loved the two Latin books. "These are great books," she said.

Gluck said that by the time her daughter read the works, she knew the difference between right and wrong. Gluck said that pornography for pornography's sake is very different from sexually explicit scenes that are part of a larger work and that such scenes are typical of the genre of modern Latin American fiction.

"That's how they write," Gluck said. "Any of the {Latin American} books that I've read -- and I've read quite a few -- fantasies and sex and ghosts and dreams and death, they just mix them all together. If you don't like that, don't read it."

But, she acknowledged, the IB curriculum includes these books, so Stonewall instructors might face a quandary in allowing a handful of students to ignore that part of the course work. IB students are required to work through a two-year, honors-level curriculum, pass a series of special examinations, master a foreign language, complete a 4,000-word thesis and perform at least 150 hours of community service.

IB graduate Colin Guest, 18, said that any student trying to get the most out of Stonewall Jackson would choose to enroll in the IB program. So a gifted student who is offended by the books is caught between a rock and a hard place. The books "didn't offend me," Guest said, "but I can see a lot of potential offensiveness. I would be happier if there were more options available. It does seem to be a little restrictive."

Stonewall parent Debra Spaldo sees the Smelsers' efforts as censorship, a term the Smelsers object to. The Smelsers say they are not trying to ban the works, but rather are looking for the school to provide a choice. Spaldo said the brutal passages depict real-life events and are part of educating a young person.

"I think it's a reality of today's world," she said. "This is something terrible that happens. Rape happens. And I think to close our eyes to it is sort of a disservice."

Amy Smelser disagreed, implying the disservice was requiring her and her classmates to read extensive descriptions of life's dark side. "In my opinion," she said, "a moral person in life doesn't need to know the details."