I think it’s become fairly obvious that I love young adult literature. I love YA lit because good YA lit, solid YA lit that is riddled with round characters and universal themes, that discusses social issues and truly allows kids to develop a greater sense of self and a greater understanding of their own identity, is not easy to come by. I guess all of that is a tall order in any book — YA or just plain A — however, YA lit has a dangerous assortment of “junk” within its ranks that can negatively influence the lives and literary tastes of middle grade and teen-aged youth. As such, I am always on the lookout for GREAT YA literature and today’s subject, The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, is one of those great titles that belongs on the shelf of any teen reader.
A few months ago, a neighbor of mine, who works in children’s book publishing, and I had a conversation about kids’ books. I complained to her that there were very few powerful, butt-kicking female protagonists a la Harry Potter or Percy Jackson that kids really connected to. Sure, there’s Francie and Scout (and boy do I LOVE Scout), but there are very few girls with all of the fantastical powers to change the world that so many male characters seem to possess. Yes, Francie and Scout can and do the change the world, but my kids could also use a dose of superhuman strength to combat the weakness and sappiness of the Bellas of the world. (Think: Twilight…) My neighbor responded, slightly surprised, “Well, of course there is! Haven’t you read The Hunger Games?” I hadn’t… and so I did.
The Hunger Games is a post-apocalyptic tale about the America of the future, the America of a time long after reality TV shows, natural resources and scapegoats in the Middle East have run out. This America has been conquered, burned and divided into 12 districts and renamed Panem. It is a land of socio-economic class tension, injustice and rule by authoritarian fear. It is a land that celebrates death and sacrifice in an annual event called, of course, The Hunger Games. It is this event around which the entire plot is based. The Hunger Games are an Olympic Games of sorts designed to test the strength and brutality of human beings, specifically teenagers. It is Survivor or The Bachelor at their worst. It is a televised event in which two children from each district must participate in a furious, bloody battle to the death… not so unlike the catfights over Jakes and Ryans and Aarons or physical contests for fishing line or tarp. Collins has adopted and violently abused the storylines and events of the worst of our present-day television series, and in so doing, has woven a lovely tale of friendship, love, adventure and justice, all through the eyes of a butt-kicking, arrow-slinging, plan-hatching narrator. Enter Katniss.
Katniss is lovely: she’s beautiful, smart, athletic, generous, loving, and a serious force to be reckoned with. She has made innumerable sacrifices for her family and her district, and she sets out, bravely, to make even more. Katniss, unlike the vampire-loving narrators so many of our teens wish they could be like, is smart and makes noble choices. However, she is not perfect. Katniss is gorgeous and lithe; she can outrun almost any other competitor and is more than handy with her bow and arrow. But, she is scared and confused. She must make split second decisions that could mean life or death for her or her comrades… and not all of her decisions are appealing to the readers. She can be hasty. She can be blind. She is tough and strong, but… she is human. Collins clearly loves the protagonist she has so carefully constructed out of seemingly recycled materials that she sometimes forgets to infuse her with human weakness. Despite this gap, Katniss and her adventures are undeniably addicting and inspiring.
I cannot wait for my kids to meet Katniss in the coming weeks. I have a feeling that some of my girls may just find themselves interested in hiking or archery after reading, while some of my boys may clamber to buy the sequel, eager to find out what happens next. If you loved The Giver or The Lottery, you are in for a treat. This book takes the frightening dystopic realities presented in those stories to an unprecedented level, and into our living rooms. I happily and wholeheartedly recommend this novel as “Assigned Reading” and cannot wait to hear the feedback from the kiddoes once they get started. 🙂