I was a bookseller at Barnes & Noble when I first rejoined the work force, and it was a glorious time in my life. What better occupation for me than to be literally surrounded by the written word and movies, and sometimes even the written word about movies? Retail hours, sore feet, Black Friday…I genuinely loved every minute of it.
My first day on the job, they assigned me to the children’s section, and I resented it considerably at first. Just because I’m a mom, I protested to faceless authorities within the safe confines of my imagination, does that automatically mean that I like children’s books? Or even children?
Within the week I got over myself, however. Turns out that the children’s section was a veritable treasure trove of entertainment. I became reacquainted with old loves such as the Pevensie children and Yertle the Turtle, and I brought home new family friends like Bad Kitty and Harry Potter. I may literally have frolicked among the pages upon occasion.
Then came the day I was assigned to “zone” the teen section, located just outside of the main children’s annex. (Tangent Alert: I loved zoning. Zoning is the process wherein you go to each bookcase with a scanner and make sure that every book is in its proper place. For this brand new divorcee and single mom, it was intensely therapeutic to be able to seize one little portion of my world and wrestle it into perfect order. I highly recommend it.)
Of course, it’s impossible for me to lay hands on any book without perusing its contents, and while I am not known to be prudish or innocent (anymore), I was floored by the percentage of – and I am being kind here – absolute smut on those shelves. In one afternoon, I was exposed to violence, meanness, glorified bullying, pain and suffering, gleeful embrace of promiscuity…and that was in the Gossip Girl series alone!
Even more terrifying was observing how blithely detached parents were from their children’s reading habits. Kids would come in, grab some random abomination off the shelf, and ask their grown-up in attendance (if there even WAS one) to buy it for them…and the grown up would just throw it in the basket without even a glance. The one time I inquired of a mother if she had read the books, her puzzled eyes darted toward the door and she immediately checked out.
Ever since that day, I have been a firm believer in reading what my kids are reading. So when my oldest came home from school touting The Hunger Games and crowing about how her book club was going to read it and see the movie, I set aside my Dave Barry collection and hunkered down for what was my new assignment as well. Here’s what I found.
My first thought, not to be mean, was that Stephenie Meyer and a host of other YA authors should take notes. Suzanne Collins has an economy with words that generates volumes of imagery from the simplest phrases. Her style is therefore highly engaging; starry-eyed teens and seasoned adults alike find themselves surprisingly invested after the first chapter.
Next I had to address the violence because that is the number one concern of us concerned parents who just want to know if we should be concerned or not. My vote is: not. Is it really all that violent? Oh, yeah. It definitely is, but there is nothing gratuitous about it.
It may have helped if she had stated it sooner, but Suzanne Collins explains at the end of the third book that the story came in honor of her parents, who – having lived through it themselves – made it a point to educate their children about war. Taken in this context, the violence has meaning and is vital. You’re supposed to cringe when the children are bleeding and the oppressed are powerless and the authorities are making sport of it all. The book is not bandying atrocities about lightly; rather, it’s bringing them to light for a new generation to see and understand. War, injustice, propaganda…these are all heavy and unpleasant topics, but very real and happening today, and therefore worthy of exposition.
Finally there are the the characters themselves. They are strong and vivid, and watching them traverse their painful landscapes is appropriately difficult but enthralling. I like the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, the most in this book of the three, yet I found her almost too realistic. I wanted her to be unflappable and pure like Superman, fueled only by a desire to right injustice, while instead she is often more reluctant and bent on survival. Yet the choices she makes in the face of her reservations are precisely what make her a hero.
It is inexplicably common for The Hunger Games trilogy to be deemed a girls’ saga simply based on the fact that the protagonist is a girl. I find this viewpoint dated and mildly offensive; after all, no one claims that Harry Potter and Percy Jackson belong to the boys. And while The Hunger Games is not for everyone, it is certainly not limited in its relevance by gender application. When the movie releases later this month, hopefully girls and boys alike will light up not only their social media with their thoughts, but also their living rooms and dinner tables.