My eighth-grade daughter is at The Hunger Games as I draft this post and I really want to write some of my thoughts about this book before she comes home and tells me all about the movie. I'm sure that she is in a crowded movie theater because in one of the classrooms I service, all of the fifth graders were talking about their plans to go see the movie. Fifth graders. I'm struggling with this.
I read the book last year when curiosity overcame my workload; the amount my daughters were talking about The Hunger Games inspired me to read it. I admit that I was completely hooked within the first twenty pages and I finished the book in two days. My full disclaimer is that I am looking forward to seeing the movie this weekend and I will probably revisit some of the book since I love to compare books and movies. As an adult, I appreciated Katniss's heroism and her ultimate moral dilemma. I also recognized the political themes of The Hunger Games. The government maintains complete control over the citizens by exploiting the children. The annual lottery to select children to kill or be killed by each other has odds that increase, depending on how much families must ask the government for food. I cheered for Katniss in the final scenes and I was relieved and proud of her ultimate decisions.
All of that being said, this book's plot is about children killing children. It's about children killing children. Additionally, the murders are televised throughout the country as a reality television show that is required viewing for all citizens per order of the government. Around the country, the viewers are cheering for their districts' representatives so they celebrate the deaths of children from competing districts.
My daughters have smart friends. Their friends read a lot and do well in school. I asked these eighth graders what they thought the book was about. One response I heard from an exceptionally bright girl was "it's a fantasy book about kids killing each other." I challenged her claim that The Hunger Games is fantasy. Is anything in this book beyond the realm of possibility? She wasn't sure. It's futuristic and that's different from fantasy. Okay, maybe the final scene with the dogs could render the book fantasy and the tree climbing was extraordinary, but people in The Hunger Games don't fly or walk through walls or find a world behind the bedroom closet. Children compete in a game that the government orchestrates and televises with impressive technology.
Last year, Jared Lee Loughner opened fire on people in Tucson, killing six and shooting a total of nineteen people, just after I finished The Hunger Games. Just recently, 17 year-old TJ Lane killed three high school students in Ohio. Our children are exposed to significant violence in their daily lives and as adults we wrestle with the morality of killing. In Connecticut, our lawmakers are on the verge of repealing the death penalty amidst great controversy; we have, among others, two death row inmates who murdered a mother and two daughters in a home invasion. Educated adults can't agree whether putting these two men to death is appropriate but several of my fifth graders are reading about teenagers being forced and then encouraged to kill each other. We aren't necessarily spending time with them to talk about the political elements or the morality issues; they just like the concept.
I'm going to need serious convincing that this book belongs in the hands of elementary students. Is Katniss a strong female heroine? Absolutely. But I worry that children will see her as a heroine because she is the most successful killer in the book. It seems to me that there are many contemporary literary role models for girls who are not wielding knives and arrows. I can think of Melody in Out of My Mind, Turtle in Turtle in Paradise, and Claire in Sugar and Ice, just to name a few. Anyone out there want to add to my list? I'd love it!