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In Which Curiosity Wins, and I Read “The Hunger Games”

If you haven’t read “The Hunger Games,” the first novel in Suzanne Collins’ young adult dystopian trilogy, and know nothing about it, first let me say: congratulations! I’m impressed (and a little jealous) in the same way I would be if you told me you’d never heard of Kim Kardashian. Being able to avoid something that’s deliberately and insistently everywhere takes real skill.

“The Hunger Games” bears a resemblance to Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery,” except it’s a novel with a post-apocalyptic, teen gladiator/reality show twist.

I mention this because you know what? I hated “The Lottery.” I thought it was depressing and creepy, and yes, I realize that’s the whole point. But it made me upset, which is generally my response to dystopian adventures, whether in films or books. It’s not that I can’t handle being upset, but what I find intolerable is when there’s nothing hopeful, because hope—the possibility for redemption or beauty or love in the face of suffering—is what confers meaning on that suffering and therefore makes it bearable. Besides, I sometimes feel as if I live in a dystopia, so it’s not like I’m trying to seek one out during my off time.

All this is to say, “The Hunger Games” had no business being on my reading list. But when my 10-year old son told me he wanted to read it, a vetting process (consisting of me reading the book) was necessary. Books can be powerful and dangerous in that authors can, through the realities they create, influence our way of thinking about and being in our world. I read the books my son reads because I want to know what kind of worlds he inhabits through books.

And? I inhaled “The Hunger Games” inside of 24 hours. Not that this means anything. I also inhale chocolate frosted donuts with alarming frequency. Doesn’t mean they’re good for me.

The thing is, I’m a very curious person, so to hook me, all you have to do is set up a series of interrelated problems, and I’ll read obsessively just to figure out how you’re going to solve them. Collins did this skillfully. As for the quality of the writing, I didn’t find it particularly elegant (though there are some very artful YA writers out there). But this may have been by design since the narrator is a hardscrabble, deprived 15-year old tomboy living in a depraved world.

As to my significant question: is the book—and here I can speak only of the first novel in the series—hopeful, i.e. does the violent, disturbing premise of children murdering each other serve a purpose besides sensationalizing?

In a way, it does. The book raises some worthwhile questions and issues. How can we maintain our personal dignity and sense of moral authority when we’re forced into situations that destroy it?  To what extent are we able, practically speaking, to resist authority when it violates our sense of right and wrong?

Given how repulsed I am by a certain genus of reality show (sorry, but I’m looking at you, Kardashians), I appreciate how Collins juxtaposes the lavish lifestyle enjoyed by residents in the Capitol (the center of authority) with the poverty and deprivation residents of other ‘districts’ experience. Hedonism and excess can wield their own destructive power, where the pursuit of pleasure becomes divorced from reason and decency.  

Also, that the ‘Hunger Games,’ an annual showdown that leaves 23 children dead, is treated as what we can recognize as a reality show—with interviews and stylists and directors who control the conditions of the ‘arena’—reflects back at us our cultural obsession with reality television and the creepy way it objectifies real people with real problems, transforming them into playthings for our amusement.

The big question for me is, how many of these issues will children—and here I’m thinking of pre-teens and elementary school children who are also reading “The Hunger Games”—absorb or be able to think through? I have no doubt that children possess rich and complex inner lives. Bruno Bettleheim, in “The Uses of Enchantment: The Meaning and Importance of Fairy Tales,” makes the point that fairy tales, even very dark ones, help children work through their fears, and I would argue that dystopian novels can provide the same opportunity.

But do children have a context for making sense of the themes at the heart of “The Hunger Games”?

My 10-year old son’s habit of hiding a flashlight under his pillow so he can read after I’ve turned off the lights suggests he has thought about power structures, his place within them, and how to resist them. Of course I cannot speak for other people’s children, but my boy has no frame of reference for understanding the cultural conversation around reality shows, so large chunks of the novel will not make as much sense as, or have the redeeming value, it might for teen readers.

“The Hunger Games” was okay, for a depressing, dystopian novel. I don’t see it as an appropriate read for elementary children, especially when there are so many other fantasy, action, and adventure books written specifically for young readers.

Here are three series that have plenty of heart-stopping thrills (with bonus myth and history lessons woven into the stories) but no children murdering each other:

Michael Scott’s Nicholas Flamel series

Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson and the Olympians series

Rick Riordan’s Kane Chronicles series

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