A Fairfax County couple is challenging nine books found on public school library shelves and reading lists because they contain profanity, cigarette and drug use, violence and sex -- gay sex, teenage sex, sexual molestation.
The books include two classics for adolescents, "The Chocolate War" and "Heroes: A Novel," both by Robert Cormier, and the popular adult novel "Shogun," by James Clavell. Richard and Alice Ess, the parents of five children, have asked the school system to remove the books from libraries and stop recommending them.
In the past two years, four other books have been challenged in Fairfax, and two of those were restricted to high school students. But officials said that this is the first time more than one book has been challenged at the same time.
Beyond getting rid of the nine books, the Esses -- whose original request included 23 titles -- say they want school officials to develop district-wide standards for books as well as a stronger parental consent system.
School officials' "view is [that] anything goes at any time at any age," Richard Ess said. "Some people, including us, disagree with that. We're not talking about Barnes and Noble or Amazon.com or even public libraries. We're talking about a public institution that educates our children with our tax dollars."
The Esses, who live in the Alexandria section of Fairfax, have been crusading for several years against what they consider inappropriate literature in schools. They are the founders of Parents Against Bad Books in Schools, which mounted the previous book challenges, and its Web site, www.pabbis.org.
School Board Chairman Stuart D. Gibson (Hunter Mill) said the Esses are trying to force their views on other parents.
"Should a parent in Alexandria be able to tell a parent in Reston what book they can take out of the school library?" Gibson asked. "They don't believe that other parents are doing a good enough job of monitoring their children's reading material."
The disputed titles are making their way through several layers of challenges, including a review by the principal of the school where each book is shelved and a hearing before a committee of 10 parents, teachers, school librarians and administrators. The committee's ruling may be appealed to the Department of Information Technology, which oversees school libraries, and ultimately to Superintendent Daniel A. Domenech and then the School Board.
Fourteen of the books on the Esses' list were eliminated early because they were not found in a school library or were shelved in the teachers-only section, said Andie Powell, a Fairfax administrator.
Ess said he and his wife filed so many challenges in hopes of drawing attention to what he calls "a systemic problem. . . . If it's just one book or it's a book in just one school, they can just brush it aside. We wanted to take a more holistic approach."
But school officials are concerned about handling so many challenges at once. Powell estimated that each challenge costs the school district about $2,600, including an employee's time and the cost of buying books for the committee and the School Board.
The School Board will meet in two weeks to consider revising the guidelines to make the reviews quicker, and members may vote on the revisions by Dec. 19. Until they are in place, Domenech said, the district will not accept challenges to other books.
As a result of previous challenges, three books -- "Druids," by Morgan Llywelyn, "The Pillars of the Earth," by Ken Follett, and "Daughters of Eve," by Lois Duncan -- were restricted to older students. No action was taken against a fourth, "Gates of Fire," by Steven Pressfield.