Author Pat Zettner was thrilled when one of the nation's leading textbook publishing firms asked to include her story, "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream," in its 1985 eighth-grade reader. Then she learned that a reference to Gloria Steinem had been purged because the editor felt it represented "militant feminism." The word "pest" was gone because it showed "sibling disrespect." "Kamikaze ball," referring to a soccer game, had been purged as a "possible ethnic offense."

Those changes paled, however, alongside others by another major publisher. That company changed the title from "A Perfect Day for Ice Cream" to "A Perfect Day," and eliminated a central trip to an ice cream parlor because it seemed to advocate junk food.

"It seems almost comical at first," Zettner said recently of both books, which Washington-area educators expect to review soon. "A textbook world in which no one must eat ice cream is an unreal world . . . . Its exclusion made my story -- a single case among many -- weaker and less vivid . . . . If ice cream can be censored, then what of apple pie? . . . My son Steven suggested that to preserve the thought behind the changes they should have retitled it, 'A Perfect Day for Broccoli Spears.' "

Parents and educators, here and elsewhere, echo Zettner's criticism, saying that much of the prose in schoolbooks today is boring, watered down, lacking literary merit and, at times, inaccurate.

They say the response of textbook authors to special interest groups -- from nutritionists to creationists to feminists -- has been so overwhelming that the America that students now read about is often not the America of their neighborhoods or schoolyards. It is an America without hamburgers or family conflict, a history without cowboys or Indians and a literature without slang or regionalism.

"Most textbooks are very boring, very minimum and not very scholarly," says James Guines, the District's associate superintendent of instruction. "In our case, we've reached the stage that the textbook is becoming supplemental to our curriculum rather than being the core it once was."

In Fairfax, the problem of unclear textbooks became so pressing several years ago that the school system embarked on a training program to help teachers and students understand awkward prose.

Locally, even young students seem to have noticed the trend. "The kids in our books seem like they have bags over their heads and they're dying of carbon dioxide . . . , " said Matt Coburn, a fifth grader who was one of a group of student government leaders who gathered last week at Belmont Elementary in Olney to discuss textbooks in a school classroom. "They don't have real feelings . . . . Our books are not real life, they're boring."

Nationally, concern over the state of textbooks peaked earlier this year after Secretary of Education T.H. Bell accused publishers of "dumbing down" textbooks to match the reading levels of the bottom of the class. Since then, educational, political and publishing leaders have moved to improve American textbooks; several states are considering forming "cartels of excellence" to lobby for better books.

Educators have suggested that school systems buy a greater variety of books geared to students' academic levels. Bell noted in an address to school administrators that up to 95 percent of classroom instruction is based on textbooks, but that less than 1 1/2 percent of school funding is spent on textbooks. "We could make some big gains with a relatively small expenditure," Bell said.

Publishers of the $1.1 billion annual market agree there is a problem, but blame state and local educators who set the standards for textbooks. Academically rigorous and literate textbooks exist, they argue, but schools will not buy them.

"All publishers can point to warehouses full of tough textbooks that nobody has bought," said Don Eklund, vice president of the school division of the Assocation of American Publishers.

One of the most common complaints about textbooks is that the reading levels are too easy. Preoccupied in the 1960s and 1970s with the problems of the disadvantaged, school systems became concerned that the average textbook was too difficult for their slower learners. Believing that it was better to have a text that everyone could read than one that many could not, educators turned to publishers for textbooks that were one or two years below grade levels.

Thus was born the reliance on controversial "readability formulas" that measure the reading difficulty of a text. To meet a formula, editors shorten words and sentences and remove unfamiliar words, often making a passage choppy and stilted. In many texts, for example in science where relationships are particularly important, simplifying frequently tends to make the text harder to follow.

An example appeared in one sixth-grade science textbook approved by the Virginia State Board of Education. "In the evening, the light fades. Photosynthesis slows down. The amount of carbon dioxide in the air space builds up again. This buildup of carbon dioxide makes the guard cells relax. The openings are closed," reads Elementary Science 6 by Ginn and Company.

"Readability formulas have had a devastating effect on textbooks . . . . Often, instead of making the text easier to read, it in fact becomes less readable, more difficult," says Bonnie Armbruster, a researcher at the Center for the Study of Reading at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign who has reviewed hundreds of elementary and secondary texts.

Jim Squire, an executive consultant to Ginn, said that a couple of years ago Ginn published a fifth-grade textbook containing the inscription from the Statue of Liberty. One state adoption committee complained, arguing that the reading level of the inscription was 11th grade.

Another problem, publishers say, is the way textbooks are selected.

In 22 states, including Virginia, state school board members decide what books can be used in classrooms. (Local school districts in Virginia, however, can add to or delete from the lists.) In the other 28 states, including Maryland, the selection method varies; school boards in counties like Montgomery approve long lists of books from which individual teachers can choose, while Prince George's County educators typically choose one basic text for each elementary subject.

Selection committees adopt guidelines that are closely watched by special interest groups monitoring everything in texts from the treatment of animals to death and evolution. Often, the committees have hundreds of books to review but only a couple of days in which to select them.

In Fairfax County, for example, a small group of educators is just beginning to review nearly 100 high school language arts textbooks. The educators meet only three full days -- once a month for three months -- before selecting the books to buy for next year.

With such time constraints, publishers say many books are given the "eight-second flip test" -- a quick thumbing through. One controversial picture or subject can mean the end of consideration.

Also, schools "have a laundry list of what you must cover and if you don't cover it, you're out of the ball game," says Eklund.

As a result, textbooks mention many subjects without focusing on any in depth.

In one chapter on national government in a popular fifth-grade social studies book, for example, more space is devoted to the structure and decor of the White House than to the workings of the legislative branch and more detail is provided about the Capitol building than the job of the president.

Frequently the selections and guidelines of the larger states such as California and Texas, which have some of the strictest guidelines and most active monitoring by special interest groups, reach beyond their state borders.

In the case of Pat Zettner's story, which first appeared in its original form in Seventeen Magazine, the second publisher purged ice cream from the text because one of the company's earlier reading series had been banned in California, primarily because it included a story with a birthday party and ice cream. California's "social content" guidelines discourage the selection of textbooks that feature foods of "low nutritive value."

As a result, nearly every major textbook publisher has banned junk food, including cakes, ice cream sodas and luncheon meats. In addition, few stories in elementary readers have conflicts or fights because a number of conservative advocacy groups have objected to unhappiness or controversy in textbooks.

Belmont student Coburn said, "I once asked my Dad why there wasn't any war or adventures in our books. My Dad said he guessed that's because they don't want us to know about violence. But we read about it in our novels. In our books we see Indians making pottery, but I'd like to see the Apaches attacking a wagon train."

His comments were echoed by nearly every child who spoke. "The kids in books don't seem to have any feelings," said Rob Keller, another fifth grader. "If a guy is playing soccer and he's kicked in the shin and it's real bloodied and bruised in real life he would sit down and cry, but in our books he says 'oh, darn' and rides his bike home."

"No one ever dies in our books," said Belmont school president, fifth grader Heather Roosevelt.

Noted child psychologist Bruno Bettelheim, in an article "Why Children Don't Like to Read," reports that an Illinois superintendent withdrew a first-grade reader from consideration when animal lovers objected to a story in which a cat pops a balloon brought home by a group of children. Cat lovers complained the story would turn children against cats.

Sometimes the elimination of subject matter can mean the neglect of a serious subject. Many scientists believe that a biology book without a probing discussion of evolution is not worth reading, but opposition to the theory has been so intense from creationists in states such as Texas that in the past decade, according to one study, the coverage of evolution has declined by up to 50 percent in major biology texts.

In Montgomery County, for example, in "Living Things" by Holt, Rinehart and Winston, evolution is not listed in the index. Instead, in a brief reference to Charles Darwin, the theory is generally described.

"Many scientists believe the theory that humans developed from earlier forms of life. You may choose not to accept this theory," the text reads in introducing the subject.

"If we only had one social injustice to correct, it wouldn't be so bad," said Harriet Bernstein of the Washington-based Council of Chief State School Officers, coordinator of a national effort helping smaller states pressure publishers to write books meeting their needs. "But there are just so many . . . . "

Even when classical literature is adapted for textbooks, colloquial language is often changed and references to the sex of characters omitted. For example, when the chapter "The Glorious Whitewasher" from Mark Twain's "Tom Sawyer" was adapted in one sixth-grade reader used in Montgomery County, most references to boys or men were changed to children or people and the slang was replaced by grammatically correct language.

Tom's oath of "honest Injun" disappeared, as did a number of the items in Tom's memorable list of payments from the boys he allowed to paint Aunt Polly's fence: part of a jews' harp, a spool cannon, six firecrackers, a kitten with only one eye and the handle of a knife.

"It shouldn't happen," said Squire of the text published by Ginn. "But often when we use dialectical and colloquial terms we find that many teachers don't want to use the texts."

Squire and other publishers also say they believe that requests by feminists have sometimes gone too far.

In most textbooks, Founding Fathers have become Founders and cowboys, cowhands. At one recent meeting of Montgomery County's high school reading textbook committee, one participant counted how many men and women had contributed to a textbook that was up for review and noted immediately that 23 men and only six women had participated.

"They'll show Lucretia Mott, but she won't be stumping, she'll be sitting . . . . That's subtle sexism," said the woman who was present at the Montgomery meeting to train committee members in monitoring sex discrimination.

Squire says Ginn "got in trouble with one fifth-grader reader from one state adoption committee that added up the sex of all the animals in a unit we had on dinasours. It turned out that most of our dinasours were male."

Efforts to improve texts are emerging. Twice in the last three months, publishers have met with Secretary Bell in Washington to discuss improvements. In March, education officials from 22 states met in Florida to discuss textbook quality. The Virginia State Board last year approved stiffer criteria for selecting textbooks and Florida recently passed a law requiring more training for members of selection committees.

"Kids are much more real than publishers give them credit for," said Belmont Principal Barbara Contrera. "If we shelter them from real life in school, then school becomes an unreal place.