We let teens fire guns. Why are we afraid to let them read books?

February 5, 2022 9:00 am

(Photo by Getty Images)

Similar to the rest of the United States, my home state of Iowa cannot make up its mind about how to treat our children and teenagers.

In Iowa, children aged 10-15 can legally deliver newspapers and complete other light work for a few hours during the week and more hours on the weekend.  Iowans who turn 14 can obtain their learners permit and drive if an adult over 25 years old is in the passenger seat. At 16, teenagers can work non-hazardous jobs, although that doesn’t always work out in reality, get a driver’s license, and qualify for a resident hunting license.

By the time Iowans reach 18, even though they may still attend high school, donate blood, serve on a jury, apply for a checking or savings account, purchase a house, sell alcohol, vote, and register for the military.

Throughout all these stages of childhood and teenage years, American children are typically attending school full time while living at home.  At the very minimum, K-12 students in the United States have a tremendous amount of academic responsibilities and familial obligations while applying critical organizational skills to both roles.

Imagine my surprise when parents started complaining about their children reading “obscene” books, specifically concerning the LGBT community, in public schools.  The Ankeny school district removed “Gender Queer: A Memoir” by Maia Kobabe from its libraries.  Waukee Northwest High School Library got rid of several LGBT-themed books.  The school district in Johnston considered banning “The Hate U Give” by Angie Thomas and “The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian” by Sherman Alexie.  Both books focus on life experiences of people of color.

The irony is that Iowa students, like most children, are already exposed to a variety of obscene, savage, and sexual material in and out of school. In 1986, my third grade class watched the Challenger explode live on television. Later that same year, nonstop news coverage of the Chernobyl disaster contained the graphic side effects of nuclear radiation on humans and animals.

My history classes in high school incorporated explicit details on the Holocaust, Soviet gulags, the John F. Kennedy assassination, amputations during the Civil War, side effects of Agent Orange in the Vietnam War, police brutality throughout the 20th century, and the Rwandan genocide. We also watched the 1993 siege in Waco live on television.

In my English classes, we read the “Diary of Anne Frank,” “Hills Like White Elephants,” “Oedipus Rex,” and “Macbeth,” which contain content about abortion, bloodshed, depravity, sexual assault, and mass murder.

At a recent Waukee school board meeting, Iowa parent Amanda McClanahan asked, “Does equity and inclusion also include incestuous relationships, child/adult sex? And books that promote pedophilia?” Has Ms. McClanahan ever read the Bible? The Old Testament is filled with incest, rape, murder, slavery, terrorism, rampant misogyny, and other brutalities.

All of this national debate over banning books is confusing and contradictory.  How can we put a gun in a teenager’s hands to serve their country yet prevent that same teenager from reading about an asexual teen?We trust a 16-year-old to operate a three-ton piece of machinery that can drive 100 miles per hour and potentially kill them yet we cannot allow that same teenager to read a book about firsthand experiences of hate crimes against minorities. A 17-year-old can go hunting, but we worry that the same teenager might read content that’s considered “anti-police.”

There is one positive development that may come out of Iowa’s banned books debate: the fastest way to get a child or teenager to do something is to forbid them from doing it.  The more scandalous reactions from parents, the greater the chances that clandestine quests for these books will skyrocket across the nation.

Every little bit helps, right?

Editor’s note: This column has been updated to correct an error about the minimum age to buy tobacco products and play the lottery. It is 21.

Our stories may be republished online or in print under Creative Commons license CC BY-NC-ND 4.0. We ask that you edit only for style or to shorten, provide proper attribution and link to our web site. Please see our republishing guidelines for use of photos and graphics.

Maria Reppas
Maria Reppas

Maria Reppas is a freelance writer who lived in Iowa from 1978 to 1999. She lives with her husband and son on the East Coast. Visit her website at