It seems like everyone – not just young adults, not just the UConn community, but everyone – is talking about The Hunger Games. As an unashamed long-time lover of young adult fiction, I was very skeptical.
I still look back on John Christopher’s dystopian Tripod novels, which I read as a kid, with great pleasure – though according to this 2012 obituary of Christopher, perhaps it’s fortunate that I haven’t re-read them recently. My daughter and I together loved Phillip Pullman’s His Dark Materials series, and Garth Nix’s great trilogy Sabriel, Lirael, and Abhorsen. And The Giver sticks with me, though I fear for its survival now that it is required reading for far too many middle- and high-school classes.
Nevertheless, I was slow to pick up the Suzanne Collins novel, partly because many of the people who were urging me to read it seemed to see it as startlingly original.
I take a certain subversive pleasure in my forays into “young adult” fiction, the sort of feeling you get from doing something just a bit outside of the social norm. When I tell other adults about these books, I sometimes sense from their reaction a feeling that I’m admitting to having read literature as politically inappropriate as Marx’s Das Kapital or as socially inappropriate as “literary” pornography like the works of de Sade.
I eventually overcame my cynicism and read The Hunger Games along with its two sequels, Catching Fire and The Mockingjay. It’s a series that raises many questions about our society, about our penchant for violence, about the stresses we place on children and young adults, and about the moral complexity of well-meaning violent intervention to right societal wrongs. Collins handles the dystopian setting and the bread-and-circuses motif well, and the chaste physical relationships among the main characters fit the “young adult” classification.
As so many critics and readers have already observed, it is Katniss Everdeen, the heroine, who drives the series. She’s resourceful, capable, utterly unsentimental, and yet morally engaged. She’s in an entirely different league than Bella of the appalling Twilight series – while Katniss gives young girls a strong, resourceful, and at times cunning role model, Bella merely devotes her life to a condescending undead man. Katniss indeed earns an honorable place with Pullman’s trouble-making Lyra Belacqua and Nix’s clever Sabriel.
It might be tempting to attribute the success of The Hunger Games to its “relevance.” Life in Panem, in which most people eke out a living while a privileged few cavort in pleasure, and the character of Katniss, who needs self-reliance and a (literally) cut-throat competitive edge to stay alive, might seem appropriate to the world that young people experience today.
But when I think back over 30 years of reading stories supposedly aimed at teenagers, I see kids and teenagers, alone or in small groups, striving to overthrow the established order and make the world a better place. Those are the kinds of books I like to think about our children reading – those with strong characters, moral dilemmas, and a sense of justice in the world.
If you haven’t read The Hunger Games yet, you should. And if you’re like me – that is, if you’re a parent – then as you identify with Katniss and her trials in the book, bear in mind that in reality you’ve crossed the line and you’ll forever more be a member of the Government of Panem.
Added in Press: I also just finished Paolo Bacigalupi’s fantastic young adult novel Shipbreaker and I highly recommend it, both for its strong characters and for its realistic picture of a world wrecked by climate change.