"I have sworn upon the altar of God, eternal hostility against every form of tyranny over the mind of man."

Thomas Jefferson
Sept. 23, 1800

Sunday, April 22, 2012

H Is For......Hunger Games

This isn't going to be a literary review. I've only read two of the three books and want to read the whole trilogy a second time, at least, before I try that. It's a lot to wrap your head around. This is not a movie review, either, though I loved the film version and highly recommend it for anyone who has read the first book. The one big failing of the movie, though, may be that it doesn't reach those who have not read the book first. It's an intense story, and that's what I wanted to write about. Is it too intense, too much, for children?

In case you've been living under a rock, the basic premise of the Hunger Games is this. In a far-off future, North America has been devastated by calamities of all sorts. The geography is a bit changed and the politics are radically different. A central Capital holds sway over outlying Districts that supply the Capital with all its needs. Because the Districts once rebelled and were defeated, they now have to offer up two children each every year to go to the Capital and fight to the death in the nationally televised "Hunger Games." Only one of the two dozen children comes out alive; it's a sick progression from Survivor, sort of. The Capital uses the Games to show the Districts that they are all-powerful and rebelling is not a good idea.

Obviously, different children will be ready to read a book about children hunting and killing each other at different ages. We are talking about a horrible premise, and the author, Suzanne Collins, does not sugar coat or pussy foot around with any of the horror. Children in this story die. It's not like Harry Potter. These kids aren't killed in a war started by evil adults. These kids are killing each other very much on purpose. As a parent of a twelve year-old son, I can really see the argument that this is wholly inappropriate material for anyone younger than a late teenager. But I let my son read it and took him to see the movie and I think that in whole, the series is something even kids his age should be encouraged to read. And I'd double down on that opinion if we are talking about a girl. Let me try to explain why I think it's not only ok, but very good for kids to read these very sad and disturbing books.

I love children. I babysat in junior high and high school and as an adult I was the leader of my son's Cub Scout den. I am always wanting to hold a baby and am more than happy on the floor playing Legos or Matchbox cars with the kids while the other adults are sitting around the table talking. I enjoy my friends' kids as much as I enjoy them. I'm lucky to have some very intelligent friends and so am usually around some very intelligent children. My Cub Scout den was full of very bright boys, exceptional maybe. I may have a warped view of children because the ones around me are so bright, but I think often kids are underestimated. That's not to say we should treat children like miniature adults, because they are not, but they are capable of understanding and working through things far beyond what their parents often give them credit for.

In my particular case, I know for sure that my son, at 12, is mature enough to understand what The Hunger Games is trying to show him. He has always been a critical thinker, never taking what he is told at face value. I suppose his questioning of what authority figures tell him is genetic, but the Force runs very strong in this one. One of my proudest moments as a parent came when he was in first or maybe second grade. Of course he has been taught all the environmentalism that is all the rage now, and we are a family of the outdoors and of museums. We visit aquariums and zoos regularly. He has been lucky to have what he has been taught in school balanced with what he has seen. This time he showed us that he really was thinking for himself and using his experience. My wife and I were joking around one evening after I saw her leave something plugged in or turned on after she was done using it. I accused her of killing polar bears. John, our son, heard this and asked what I meant, how was mommy killing polar bears? I told him that some people believed that using too much electricity led to global warming and that the earth warming up would melt the ice caps where the polar bears live and so the polar bears would die. I promise I was not sarcastic in the least, I really wanted to see what he would say. Really, I was hoping for a glimpse into what he had learned in school about global warming, but that's not what I got. John was quiet for a few seconds, then got this really disgusted look on his face and proclaimed, "That's stupid. Polar bears can SWIM." And he wandered back to watch Spongebob. My point here is not that he is an expert in polar bears or global warming, but that he used what he had seen and experienced (we'd been to the zoo a few weeks before and watched the polar bear frolicking in the water for a long time) to critically process what he was being told. And that is where this relates to The Hunger Games.

Many children as young as "tweens" are perfectly able to read a book like Hunger Games without being scarred for life or desensitized to violence. Not all authors could have pulled this off. I give Suzanne Collins huge credit for making the book a lesson in strength and honor and trust and fortitude rather than an exercise in gratuitous violence or sappy love. Hunger Games is a warning, in a couple of ways. It's a warning not to get carried away with the reality TV competitions on one level, but it has a definite political warning as well. The children central to the story know they are being manipulated by a government for political propaganda purposes, and they try to balance their own lives with a fight against that. The kids struggle with the idea that there are things bigger than themselves, things like love and trust and freedom. For a child growing into the narcissistic teen years, this is a good thing. And for children learning in school that the government is the cure for all the world's ills, Hunger Games does a great job of showing how a paternalistic state can manipulate people into docile acceptance of horror. Collins does a great job balancing these two concepts, that there are things much bigger than the individual, but that at the same time, it's individuals acting sometimes very alone that keeps the big concepts like freedom and trust and love alive.

The fact that the book's protagonist is a girl makes this all that much better. Katniss isn't a Superwoman, but neither is she a passive damsel in distress waiting to be saved by some man or institution. She is a victim, yes, she is taken from her family and forced against her will to fight for her life and kill other children, but she rages against her circumstances. Katniss doesn't accept the premise set out for her by the ones in charge; she uses her own experience and her own heart and soul to leave the box and win on her own terms. That's a great lesson for girls especially, but it's a great lesson for all children and all adults. It needed to be couched in horror to have the impact that it does.

The Hunger Games reminded me of all I am most proud of in my son, and it gives me hope that he is not alone.

Katniss wouldn't buy into the drowning polar bears.

1 comment:

  1. I like your post, Jeffrey, and I agree with you that the story is marvelously compelling and very well crafted. I commented to you before we saw the movie that I was curious how someone who hadn't read the books would react to and interpret the movie, and that I was a little frustrated that I wouldn't be able to know that for myself, since I had read the books so many times that there was no way I could disassociate myself from my knowledge of the finer plot points and inner monologues that shape so much of the reader's impressions of Katniss and co. I kind of feel the same way about trying to decide if this is an appropriate book for the tween-age set. I didn't read these books as a tween (although I read many MANY books as a tween that were "not for my age group") and so I don't know how I, an admittedly brilliant and precocious child, would have handled them. Someone suggested recently that my 11 year old nephew should read The Hunger Games, and my immediate, gut reaction was "NO WAY". The woman argued, "Well, he read all of the Harry Potter books, and those were way worse" and I had to disagree, for the very reason you mention: Children's literature is historically FULL of adult vs. child conflict, kids are used to that and enjoy that theme, I think it's empowering in a way. But although The Hunger Games is ultimately about the children being used and manipulated by adults, it's immediately about kid vs. kid, and in a very graphic and disturbing way. I don't doubt that John is totally ready to read, enjoy and understand books like this, but I think many kids his age are not. I hope there are a lot of thoughtful parents out there who are monitoring what their children are reading. More importantly, I hope there are a lot of thoughtful parents out there, like you, who are taking the time to READ WHAT THEIR KIDS ARE READING, so that when the kids inevitably have questions or concerns or fears, they are informed and equipped to deal with them. Okay, haha, thus ends my speech for the day. I should spend this much time on my own blog.