Purpose of this Blog...

You may have noticed that not all books are equal in capturing children's imaginations and in cultivating those innocent, tender souls. My goal is to help you find the ones that do!
(Painting by Mary Cassatt: "Mrs Cassatt Reading to her Grandchildren" -1888)

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Have you tasted THE HUNGER GAMES?

I'm just starting the final book of THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy. My general impression of much of what is labeled "YA Lit" is not always positive so I hadn't pursued these books, until my niece recommended them to me a few weeks ago.

She is a smart, gifted young girl and her parents have raised her and her two older brothers with many of the same family values shared by my husband and me.

So, of course, I took notice and listened.  Her enthusiasm won me over, and I immediately started reading the first book, titled The Hunger Games.  And let me tell you, it's a major page-turner!

Author Suzanne Collins certainly doesn't shy away from big issues in her books: the brutality of war, personal ethics, power of the elite class, sacrifice, and the dangerous nature of an entertainment and voyeuristic-driven society (ouch - how about the mania of reality TV in our own culture).

She also doesn't shy away from asking a question that comes with those big issues:  in the midst of all this darkness, how do we hold on to what makes us truly human?

As a script writer, Collins knows how to deliver a plot and character driven story, full of quick dialogue.  Her writing sytle does not put this book in the category of great literature, but it's definitely an exciting, if dark, read. Here's the basic premise of this sci-fi trilogy, which the author says was inspired by the Greek myth, "Theseus and the Minotaur" (more about that later)...

Katniss is a 16-year-old girl living with her mother and younger sister in the poorest district of Panem, the remains of what used be the United States. Long ago the districts waged war on the Capitol and were defeated. As part of the surrender terms, each district agreed to send one boy and one girl to appear in an annual televised event called, "The Hunger Games." The terrain, rules, and level of audience participation may change but one thing is constant: kill or be killed. When Kat's sister is chosen by lottery, Kat steps up to go in her place.

If you haven't yet read the H.G. trilogy, I hope you can get some of your questions answered here in my post; but you as a parent will ultimately have to determine at what age your kids are ready to read the books and deal with the issues brought up in these cautionary tales. The second book of the trilogy is Catching Fire, and the last book is Mockingjay.  (The YA age recommendation is 13-17.)

Like another controversial book, William Golding's poignantly written Lord of the Flies, The Hunger Games is an ugly, if important book to read.  Parents should definitely preview Collins' books, especially if you plan to let your kids see the upcoming movie versions of THG Trilogy. I can assure you, many good discussions are sure to surface about the intense content of these stories.

As you can imagine, there is plenty of graphic violence that your teen will be confronted with in these books. There is also a rather hefty dose of romantic teen struggle, even though Katniss is more often motivated by love for her family than by lust for a boy. Thanks to the manipulative powers of the Game Makers, bow-and-arrow-wielding Katniss is thrown into the arena with Peeta (the boy she is selected to compete with from her district) and torn between her feelings for him and Gale (a boy left back home in District 12, who Katniss had hunted for food with ever since the death of her father).

The author works in plenty of PG-13 situations, but she is careful about anything being sexually explicit.  For example, besides kissing, there is some "sleeping together", but the characters are truly sleeping. Katniss is even referred to as "pure" in comparison to the voyeurism of the inhabitants of the Capitol.

I'm not sure how all this will play out on the big screen, but producer Nina Jacobson is determined to protect the message that Suzanne Collins was trying to convey in her books.

The Hunger Games 
series is ultimately a message about the dangers of oppressive government and senseless war and violence.  By putting children into a televised battle that is prime-time entertainment, Collins shocks us as readers into an awareness of one way society becomes desensitized to violence and real-life tragedy.  The preciousness of life gets forgotten, through the celebrity of reality TV programming.  Suzanne Collins also sends young readers a strong warning about not just living out an existence on the sidelines while allowing an elite class or oppressive government to take away our humanity by turning us against each other and depriving us of compassion and love of neighbor.

Does it sound ironic that this book is being made into an "entertainment", as a movie?  It will be interesting to see how it goes. (Collins wrote the screen play herself and is listed as an executive producer, so I have a feeling her message will be delivered intact.)

Below, I've included an excerpt from an excellent Library School Journal interview by Rick Margolis with author Suzanne Collins. You might be surprised by some of the things she has to say about teaching our children about war...


...your last eight novels have closely examined the effects of war and violence on children. Why are you so obsessed with that topic?

That would definitely go back to my childhood. My father was career Air Force. He was in the Air Force for 30-some years. He was also a Vietnam veteran. He was there the year I was six. Beyond that, though, he was a doctor of political science, a military specialist, and a historian; he was a very intelligent man. And he felt that it was part of his responsibility to teach us, his children, about history and war. When I think back, at the center of all this is the question of what makes a necessary war—at what point is it justifiable or unavoidable?

So let me get this straight. You’re a young kid and your dad is discussing the philosophical significance of war with you and your three siblings?

Ab-so-lutely! One of my earliest memories is being at West Point and watching the cadets drill on the field. If you went to a battleground with my father, you would hear what led up to the battle. You would hear about the war. You would have the battle reenacted for you, I mean, verbally, and then the fallout from the battle.

And having been in a war himself and having come from a family in which he had a brother in World War II and a father in World War I, these were not distant or academic questions for him. They were, but they were also very personal questions for him. He would discuss these things at a level that he thought we could understand and were acceptable for our age. But, really, he thought a lot was acceptable for our age, and I approach my books in the same way.

How so?

I mean, a lot of things happen in “Gregor.” Those books are probably for—what?—ages 9 to 12 or 9 to 14? There’s biological terrorism in the third book. There’s genocide in the fourth book. There’s a very graphic war in the fifth book. But I felt that if my audience came with me from the beginning of that series, they would be able to understand that in context. And I feel the same way about the “Hunger Games” series.

You know, I have two children of my own, so I can think about, “Alright, how would I say this to them?” Things were discussed with me at a very early age. For some people, both of these series, “Gregor” and the “Hunger Games,” are fantasies; some people call them sci-fi. But for me, they’re absolutely, first and foremost, war stories.

One of the most disturbing aspects of the “Hunger Games” is that children are forced to murder other children on live TV. I can’t think of another series for young people that has so much kid-on-kid violence.

Well, the thing is, whatever I write, whether it’s for TV or whether it’s books, even if I’m writing for preschoolers, I want the protagonist to be the age of the viewing audience. So I’m not going to write a war story for kids and then just have them on the sidelines. If I write a war story for kids, they’re going to be the warriors in it.

And if it’s a gladiator story—which is how “Hunger Games” began, I’d say it’s essentially a gladiator story—then the children are going to be the gladiators. They’re not going to be sidelined. They’re going to be the active participants in it. There will be adult characters, but you’re going to go through it with someone who is the age of the intended audience.

Your books send a strong message that grown-ups have messed up the world big-time, and kids are the only hope for the future.

Absolutely. I can’t remember how much we talked about Theseus and the Minotaur the last time we spoke, but Theseus and the Minotaur is the classical setup for where The Hunger Games begins, you know, with the tale of Minos in Crete….

Right. As punishment, Minos ordered the Athenians to throw seven young men and seven maidens into a labyrinth to be devoured by the Minotaur—until Theseus finally kills the monster. I remember you telling me that as an eight-year-old, you were horrified that Crete was so cruel—and that in her own way, Katniss is a futuristic Theseus.

But once the “Hunger Games” story takes off, I actually would say that the historical figure of Spartacus really becomes more of a model for the arc of the three books, for Katniss. We don’t know a lot of details about his life, but there was this guy named Spartacus who was a gladiator who broke out of the arena and led a rebellion against an oppressive government that led to what is called the Third Servile War. He caused the Romans quite a bit of trouble. And, ultimately, he died.

What do you hope young readers take away from your books?

One of the reasons it’s important for me to write about war is I really think that the concept of war, the specifics of war, the nature of war, the ethical ambiguities of war are introduced too late to children. I think they can hear them, understand them, know about them, at a much younger age without being scared to death by the stories. It’s not comfortable for us to talk about, so we generally don’t talk about these issues with our kids. But I feel that if the whole concept of war were introduced to kids at an earlier age, we would have better dialogues going on about it, and we would have a fuller understanding.

Can those dialogues help put an end to war?

Eventually, you hope. Obviously, we’re not in a position at the moment for the eradication of war to seem like anything but a far-off dream. But at one time, the eradication of slave markets in the United States seemed very far off. I mean, people have to begin somewhere. We can change. We can evolve as a species. It’s not simple, and it’s a very long and drawn-out process, but you can hope.

[You can read the full interview HERE]


  1. I read the first one May 2010...I let our 10 year old daughter read it too and she was enthralled, too. I think it's an excellent book, because it's important to have those to rebel against the system, the Capitol who asserts so much control is so real! I'm afraid America is moving in that direction.

  2. I haven't read the book or seen the film but there was a trailer on at the cinema when we went to see 'The woman in black". It looked like the stuff of nightmares, having said that I am intrigued to learn more.

  3. The main flaw that I have noticed mentioned in negative reviews is the morality and the idea that survival is more important than anything. But survival is not the ultimate good. I'm wondering how the story would have been different if the perspective reflected that doing the right thing was more important than self-preservation. As a Christian, what would I do in such situations? What would the right actions be? That's a question worth digging into.

  4. This is a great post and the interview is very interesting. I think an often-overlooked aspect of the Hunger Games story is the huge technology gap. The people in control, in the capital, have elaborate technology that even allows them instant food of their choosing. The people in the outlying districts are starving while they collect the food and mine the coal to power the capital. They don't even have access to the internet in any form, so they can't organize and find out what is happening in other districts. We've had some interesting dinner table conversations about how controlling information is an effective tool to control people.

    A school librarian first suggested this book to my son when he was in 5th grade. After reviewing it, I decided not to let him read it. His sister in 7th grade did and loved it so I read it myself and then let my 10 year olds read it. They're pretty mature readers though and we discussed it a lot.

  5. This is an EXCELLENT commentary on the series. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=RsFBbS39_z0&sns=em

  6. Nice objective analysis, Wendy; along with some comparative literature putting the "Hunger Games" books and movie into some context. I haven't read the books or seen the movie, therefore I'm obviously not qualified to proffer my opinion. Be that as it may, there's no question ans to both at a minimum being provocative. Are they not suitable for children? I don't have the answer but you've provided great context to analyze and consider that fact or ponder the question.

  7. I'm late getting here, but I'm glad that you reviewed these books. I had been going to give them a miss, but now I might pick one up just to see what I think.

    One of my questions about this series is whether young readers get the meta-point she's trying to make, or if they just get wowed by the idea of a new tough hero kicking tail. It's very hard for kids to look past that, and it'll be harder with images of Kat with her bow and arrow all over the place now. Not a criticism, just a thought.

    1. Grace - Let me know after you read the book (the first was the best, in my opinion). Your point is well taken. That is one reason I have trouble recommending it for kids under thirteen. Katniss is 16 - I think that would ultimately be the best age to read the series and get the full impact of the author's message. Especially for younger kids who really want to read it and see the movie - I'd hope that their parents would read too and discuss the issues.