Thursday, April 19, 2012

Happy? Hunger Games!

I've got bags under my eyes this week, not just because of seasonal allergies, or the fact that the Grape has chosen school vacation week to reduce his total sleeping time by three hours per twenty-four. I've spent the past few nights sucked into The Hunger Games.

("Happy Hunger Games!" is what the government representative says as she sends randomly selected children to meet violent deaths for political reasons.)

I'm halfway through book two of Suzanne Collins' wildly popular trilogy. The language is simple, and makes for an easy, fast read. Collins blithely ignores the writer's creed to show, not tell. While college seminars about her work may spring up, I doubt The Hunger Games will take its place on the junior high and high school reading lists.

Which is a shame, because the books have inspired hundreds of thousands of kids to read. Happy Hunger Games indeed. Equally great news: in narrator and star Catniss Everdeen, Collins has created a female hero who appeals equally to girls and boys - no mean feat in a world where boys still veer towards male protagonists while girls often cast a wider net. If Collins can shatter the myth of "boy's novels" and "girl's novels" for the young adult set, my hat's off to her.

Because Collins' stories have captured so many young imaginations, I suggest they should have a place alongside the literary greats on school curricula. I'm not saying replace the classics; add The Hunger Games on top. I doubt most kids will groan at the assignment, especially if taught in a thoughtful way.

It would be idiotic to make children waste time writing a "this happened, then this happened, and it means XYZ" type of book report about these books. There's not much for nuance or literary flair. Collins, however, tackles enormous themes in her fast plot. For the junior high set, The Hunger Games provides a natural but accessible jumping off point for discussions of "bigger" dystopian works.

The books beg age old questions about how much liberty the public can or should trade for security, and it frames them in an utterly relatable, not-too-distant future setting. Reality TV where contestants are forced to kill each other? I doubt that premise poses an enormous stretch for a modern teenage brain.

The books pose uncomfortable but important questions about what happens when a society concentrates all the wealth and power in the hands of a tiny minority, which in turn keeps the majority down by keeping them hungry, broke, uneducated and terrified.

History classes could reference the books in conversations about apartheid, colonialism and empire. Make the past (and indeed much of the globe's present) seem more pressing by using the book everyone is reading for context.

At the high school level, the same questions could be tackled in greater depth. The Hunger Games series could be studied alongside classic dystopian works like 1984, The Handmaid's Tale and even The Wizard of Oz. (Anyone who doesn't immediately notice the Capitol's blatant homage to the Emerald City has obviously stayed up far too late flipping pages.)

The child on child violence, which takes place in a future North American dystopia, compels the reader to keep turning pages. I suspect Collins knew she had a Grand Slam Home Run: the books are crafted to ensure a coveted PG-13 rating. The violence, while brutal and bloody, takes place off-stage (i.e. out of Catniss' sight) as often as before her eyes. Not once does one government storm trooper, anguished parent or teenager fighting for his life utter an obscenity. There's no sex. At least not in book one, or halfway through book two. Neither impaling nor disemboweling children garners an R these days (though a glimpse of female breast does).

The books have their detractors, of course. Some parents wring their hands over the violence. I get that. My mom took one book away from me, ever. Shogun. I think I was pushing twelve. She thought it would give me nightmares, what with all the hara-kiri and boiling innocent citizens in oil. She was probably right. I bet The Hunger Games has sparked its share of bad dreams in young brains. Since I don't have a ten-year-old, I'm not faced with having to decide whether to allow him to read the books at a tender age or not. The books are so popular that many kids who don't read them will still know the story.

I'm more troubled that a significant minority of Amazon's customer reviewers find Catniss "unlikeable." In the reviews I read (dozens among thousands), readers who penned negative reviews frequently cited Catniss' tough personality as a turn off.

Excuse me? She lives in a totalitarian society where, on a good day, she must commit a capital crime in order to have enough to eat. She has other mouths to feed. Her government forces her to fight other kids to the death. Is she supposed to be giggling about boys and braiding her friends' hair at the same time? Worrying about others when it's all she can do to try to keep herself and her immediate family safe? Please.

Why is a strong, independent female who refuses to go down without a fight deemed unlikeable?

Now there's a great essay question for high school kids to write about.

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