April 9, 2012 Leave a comment
A few weeks ago, an assistant school librarian asked me if I thought The Hunger Games trilogy was suitable reading for a ten-year-old. I couldn’t give her an opinion because at that stage I hadn’t read it. I said I’d get back to her and borrowed the books from the library to read.
I wish I hadn’t.
It’s not because the trilogy wasn’t a good read, it was. It’s an engaging, fast paced, action-packed story with characters that are flawed, and real. Suzanne Collins writes the narrative in the first person from the perspective of key character 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen.
The premise is a post-apocalyptic dystopian society where annually, each of the twelve districts of the country Panem must select two children between the ages of 12 and 18 and put them forward as tributes for reality TV program The Hunger Games. The Capitol celebrates the kids, parades them before the audience, then forces them to kill each other while the whole country watches the ‘show’ live on television.
It is violent, and terrible, and gut wrenching. Watching confused, traumatised children murder each other in a desperate bid to get home to their families is heartbreaking. And experiencing the story from a 16-year-old who volunteers to take her 12-year-old sister’s place as tribute because she thinks she has a better capacity to kill and therefore stay alive a little longer before meeting her inevitable demise, makes it all the more horrific.
My first response was to empathise with the parents’ whose children were stolen from them by the Capitol, the ‘government’ of Panem, knowing that of the 24 children taken, only one would return alive. My second thought was to wonder how young readers deal with the horrendous (though at times stylised) abuses depicted throughout the books.
So I asked them. Adults who had read the books expressed concern about the violence and told me they wouldn’t allow their younger teens to read them. They didn’t want them exposed to concepts and emotions they weren’t ready to deal with. But kids had a different view. I had the first book with me when I visited a primary school. One of the Year 6 kids (11-year-old) asked me what I thought; I told him I thought it was awful. He responded with a shrug and a dismissive “yeah, but people are awful to each other,” and then went on to chat enthusiastically about a particular plot twist in the second book of the trilogy Catching Fire.
I was stunned. The school is in a middle class area in the northern suburbs of Sydney and I pondered on the casual acceptance of violence and abuse in the experience of this little boy. I put it to the kids at the high school I was at the next day. And I was very interested to find a similar analysis of those who had read the books.
These kids were the target demographic of 13+ readers. They acknowledged its violence and the ‘awfulness’ of the plot and confirmed the acceptance of the 11-year-old about people being awful to each other.
“Didn’t you watch Kony?” One kid asked.
I did. And then I realised. In the global technological context of our current society, these kids know that such atrocities actually do occur. In other parts of the world kids their age do get stolen from their families, and are forced to murder other innocents, or be murdered themselves. They’re maligned and abused and have to do terrible things to stay alive. And governments do little to stop it. And families grieve.
They get it. And I’m not sure if that’s a good thing. I guess kids don’t hold on to innocence as long as they used to.
Years ago at uni, we had a similar discussion about The Chocolate War by Robert Cormier. The Chocolate War is still banned from some school libraries in the States because of its explicit and violent content. It is a graphic depiction about bullying in the context of a Catholic Boys School. It too, is real and haunting. It’s about a targeted campaign of bullying against a boy who refuses to take part in the school’s chocolate drive. The characters are flawed and real and there is nothing stylised about the violence and abuse depicted.
The adults are too preoccupied or too focused on personal gain and promotion to challenge the status quo and the victimised boy suffers endlessly and needlessly, powerless to protect himself. The book was first published in 1974 and was a real wake-up call to educators and parents about the nature of bullying. It sparked, and continues to do so, many discussions and debates, not only about the nature of bullying but also about whether or not children should have access to such reading material, particularly at school.
The Hunger Games discussions are reminiscent of these. I think that as adults we underestimate the capacity of children to process what they read. Whether or not we want to accept it, many children are aware—some experience personally—the reality of violence and crime. And stories such as these reflect that awareness and give it a context for which adults can then generate discussion with them about the hows and whys of such things.
So the answer I would give the librarian who asked me? It depends of the maturity of the child reader and the capacity they have to process concepts of which they may or may not have awareness. I would suggest a parent or other adult read the books first so that they might have an understanding of the premise and concepts, and keep the discussion going as the child progresses through the books.
I don’t agree with censorship, I do believe in the value of discussion.