In which Annie (high school teacher, mother of two young girls and a younger boy) and her aunt Deborah (children's bookseller, mother of two young women in their 20s) discuss children's books and come up with annotated lists.

Sunday, March 18, 2012

Hunger mania

Dear Annie,

I would like to report that I have my ticket to the opening  midnight show of The Hunger Games movie this Thursday night -- will be going with some of my co-workers.  The movie has been fueling an across-the board popularity for the book that at times reminds me of the Twilight years.

I've been getting lots of questions from parents who are uncomfortable with the idea of their children reading
The Hunger Games
and sequels.  This week, a mom whose 11 year-old wants to read the book asked me about it, and before I could say much, her 9 year-old fourth grader gave us a detailed, fairly accurate summary of the book.  She hadn't read it -- but it's so popular that even 9 year-olds know the plot.  The day before, a regular customer had stopped me on the street to ask about its appropriateness for his ten year-old grandson.

My first reaction is to say, this is your child, you need to go by whatever fits your family's standards.  The people who ask about the book are always ones who haven't read it, and the basic description, as I've mentioned before, is one which makes many parents of preteens recoil.  Most of the book takes place in a reality TV show in which the teenage contestants kill each other off: the last one standing is the winner.  But, as you know, it's not a book about how to kill people: it's about repressive government, members of the oppressed class figuring out how to resist that government, strategy, psychological manipulation, integrity -- and hope.

What's the right age to read disturbing books?  What kind of disturbing is something to worry about?  What is a parent worried about -- bad dreams? bad values? bad behavior? warped view of human interaction?  I am writing here as a parent who read both Treasure Island and
The Hobbit
to Lizzie when she was Eleanor's age -- yes, five years old. Within the world of books in our household, those choices made sense.   She craved stories of adventure.  Despite the fact The Hobbit contained a scene combining two of Lizzie's biggest fears -- wolves and fire -- she loved the book.  We re-read it with her multiple times.  In my 13 years of bookselling I've probably recommended The Hobbit for a five or six year old only a handful of times. 

Both those books have scary scenes, but not horrifying ones.  The protagonists maintain one's faith in human (or hobbit) nature.  But a book which presents institutionalized cruelty, as in The Hunger Games -- at what age is a child ready to process that?  And once it becomes a part of playground conversation -- does that inoculate kids against its more disturbing elements?  Is it just another action plot, not to be taken too seriously?  I think of The Hunger Games as process-able by most sixth graders. And I think of most fourth graders as not being there yet.  But it's a book about resisting cruelty, about trying to hold onto the important values in life as one is being devalued.  When is one's child ready for those themes?

One of the things I say to those parents who want guidance on The Hunger Games is that it's a good book, one they might want to read themselves -- for their own interest, and to make a more informed judgement than I can offer about their children. 

And pretty soon, I'll be able to add the movie  to those conversations.



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