Thursday, April 5, 2012

The Hunger Games: Will Reading It Ruin Your Kid?


In a recent Newsweek article, called "Save My Kid From the Hunger Games," columnist and correspondent Jamie Reno is beside himself that his 12 year old daughter has developed an obsession with The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins. He laments: 

"Do I wish that our youth culture didn’t hold such a fascination with violence, death, vampires, zombies and other dark images and themes? Yes. But what’s a loving father to do?"

I have to roll my eyes. Are The Hunger Games stories more violent than Harry Potter? Yes. But then again, Harry Potter is a children's book. The Hunger Games and its sequels are categorized as Young Adult Lit. This means it is aimed for teenagers, i.e. young adults. Does this mean Katniss won't be shy about kissing boys or killing them? You bet. But vampires, zombies, and other dark images? What could he possibly mean? Cthulhu the Hungers Games are not.


YA is the equivalent of a PG-13 (M-12 for everyone else) and is intended for young adults. Hellooo, dad! It's right there in the demographic which your daughter is a part of. Even so, it's not like his daughter is obsessed with Battle Royale or Lord of the Flies, even though Collins' saga tends to borrow heavily from both. Perhaps a little too much at times. But even if it takes the themes from these two, it does something different than its predecessors. It has a powerful message. At its core The Hunger Games is a story about young people overthrowing the corrupt system put in place by or passively supported by their elders. It's about coming into your own and having to make hard choices. It deals with personal growth. Katniss and crew must grapple with moral and social questions which every teenager has probably asked his/herself at least once, and then some.

Is there murder in The Hunger Games? Yes. Will all teenagers likely need to ever seriously consider the pros and cons of killing someone and the inevitable ramifications? Probably not. It's a fiction.

When I watch John Rambo shoot up the bad guys, I don't pause to reflect on the deeper ethics of violence in the real world. I know it's not real. So do most teenagers, which is why there is Young Adult literature in the first place. You can have a kiss scene without it turning into a raunchy romance novel and you can have a few murders without it turning into a war memoir. It's somewhere in-between, just like a PG-13 film is somewhere between a PG film and a rated R film (which is why that analogy works so well).


That's why I have a problem with Reno's mischaracterization of The Hunger Games. He compares the content of the books to that of vampire and zombie lore. I laughed out loud at this part. What an adacious claim!  





Vampire novels today are nothing more than a cheap throwback to the Gothic romance novels of an illustrious past. There has been hundreds of years of vampire mythos, literally. Bram Stoker merely infused enough mystery and intrigue into the mythos to reinvent it and make it thrilling for his audience. If that was the comparison, then I'd be okay with it. But I think Reno has in mind something like Twilight or The Vampire Diaries. Less violent than Buffy, perhaps, and yet just as corny. Today's vampires are merely watered down versions of a lot grittier genre and much richer mythology. I just can't roll with the comparison. It makes no sense.

Which brings us to his second comparison: zombies. Zombies? Are you kidding me? As an author who has just completed his first zombie novel, I feel obligated to set the record straight. The zombie genre is primarily aimed at adults. Sure there is some tweeny Halloweeny kids' friendly versions for your child's consumption--but much of the genre of the "Living Dead" is not aimed at your teenage daughter. If she was obsessed with zombies, then I'd be a little more worried than the fact that she is into a cool female hero of a YA book written by a talented woman author. Whereas the vampire comparison doesn't make any sense, this one is just creepy. Get with the program, dad!

The Hunger Games may seem like a cheap knock off of the morbidity and violence saturated Battle Royale and Lord of the Flies, but it's not the same kind of beast. Not at all. This isn't senseless violence for violence sake. Katniss must address the issue of what happens when authority, in this case all the adults in her life, force her to do something which she knows to be morally wrong. How does she deal with such a situation? How does she cope? How can any young person make a stand when they are always treated like children? Maybe it's time we start giving our teenagers the benefit of the doubt. 
They aren't forming cults. They're forming book fan clubs. 


Besides The Hunger Games has more in common with George Orwell's 1984 than with Lord of the Flies. Although, I must say, it plagiarizes Battle Royale a little too much (almost beat for beat) for my comfort. That makes it fairly trite, but I don't think Collin's was aiming for originalility. She is utilizing an already established genre to bring her characters to life. And she succeeds. Big time.


If Reno thinks youth culture is obsessed with violence to an unhealthy degree, then he has to do better than shrieking, "Oh my God, my daughter is reading The Hunger Games!"

Being an educator of teenagers for near a decade, I can safely say that I highly doubt violence is the only aspect teens are obsessing over. In fact, it may be minimal. Especially as far as teenage daughters are concerned. Sure, teenagers will often sneak into rated R films just for the thrill of it, but who hasn't (other than kids denied a proper childhood)? But teenagers don't typically sneak into rated R movies just for the sex and violence. They do it to see what all the fuss it about. They do it to rebel. They do it to prove to themselves that they are mature enough to handle it. I doubt that's why young teens are flocking to the theater and bookstore to get their fix of The Hunger Games.

I rather think that Reno's daughter, and everyone else for that matter, may be genuinely interested in the book, in the story, and in its characters. Oh, to think such a possibility even exists! Young people liking a book? 
Who'd have thunk it?!  There has to be a different explanation. Obviously it this generations depravity and obsessiveness of violence which is drawing them into... gasp... young adult lit.


Reno quotes a few of his daughter's peer group, trying to make a debate out of what I feel are merely people's reading preferences. He quotes both sides of the argument, those for and against teenagers interested in The Hunger Games. If I were to try and sum up the arguments it would go something like this:


FOR: ‎"Kids aren't reading enough! We need to get them to read more! Let them read it!"


AGAINST: "Ewe, gross! Why are you reading that? Stop it!"  



Still not convinced that The Hunger Games books are a bad influence on your child? Me neither. It really seems there is no argument to be had here. Hell, I've read them. They were good. Collins' writing is solid, fast paced, and her characters come to life. 


More importantly though: It's just damn good storytelling.





But that's what pushes The Hunger Games ahead of the rest. After all, what's its main competition? Twilight? Are you kidding me? While browsing Barnes & Noble, I couldn't get through half a chapter of a Twilight novel before putting it back on the bookshelf and quietly walking away. The writing was that bad. I bought the hard cover editions of The Hunger Games trilogy after thinking to myself, hey, this is really darn good. I want to read more! Apart from stingy ole dads, who is to say that teenagers aren't smart enough to recognize good writing when they read it?


But let's not be too hard on old dad, after all, he's glad the book has sparked an interest in reading among a television addicted generation. That's an amazing feat, and at least Reno is smart enough to acknowledge it.
There are undeniably many positives about the national fixation with The Hunger Games. Most notably: the fact that, thanks to entertainments like this trilogy, my daughter and young people across the country still have a passion for books.

What he isn't smart enough to do, sadly enough, is offer his daughter a decent book recommendation. Reno states:

But I’m not-so-secretly hoping my daughter’s passion for reading will soon lead her beyond just what’s new, trendy, and gory, and that she’ll gravitate toward some of the classics her mom and dad loved, such as The Great Gatsby, A Separate Peace, Catcher in the Rye, A Moveable Feast, and To Kill a Mockingbird.


First off, these "classics" are majorly boring reads. I didn't read then until I was in college. I probably wouldn't have appreciated them anyway until I was cultured enough to read such stories. Furthermore, as one of my female writer friends chimes in:
Talk about missing the point. I should point out that most of the classics he wants his daughter to read are written by men or from a male point of view. Also, many adult readers are diverse in their tastes, why do we assume that because someone, particularly kids, read YA that it means they will never read anything else?

Indeed. I have to agree with her. First off, Reno missed the point--big time. Because his daughter likes a YA book doesn't mean it's the only book she'll like or ever read. Maybe she's never shown an interest in books until now, but she's twelve for crying out loud! Which makes me wonder, why on earth would he recommend dense, challenging, books meant for adults and written by old white farts? Is that really what his teenager daughter is itching to read next? Why not keep the momentum going by, oh, I don't know, try recommending something in the genre she is interested in?

It's seems that Mandy, Reno's daughter, is interested in YA and more specifically SciFi. Maybe introduce her to some Madeleine L'Engle, Margaret Atwood, or Kathy Tyers. While growing up I really enjoyed Ray Bradbury myself. That may be more up her alley, and it will keep her hooked, and maybe as she cultivates a sophisticated taste in literature of her own she'll branch off into other genres too. But to expect your teenage daughter to read Catcher in the Rye because you liked it? That's just dad being an idiot.

Is Collins' book series violent. A little more than usual, perhaps. Will it ruin your child? Not likely. I hate to say it, but it's true, the odds just aren't in Jamie Reno's favor. Katniss wins--Game Over.




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