Monday, January 17, 2011

Mainstream Author Highlight: Suzanne Collins, The Hunger Games Trilogy

"Mainstream Author" highlights, as well as our "Mainstream" reviews are not necessarily recommendations for Christian families. Rather, as parents we recognize that many kids will read such books, with or without parental permission. Our goal is to help parents prepare for what their kids may read, offer insights into positive aspects of the books, and give tips on areas to talk to kids about. In addition, we recognize that sometimes "dark" books may be difficult to read, but can offer an excellent way for teens to think about the world we live in.

Suzanne Collins has written a powerful series detailing the horrors of war and violence and their effects on people and societies alike. The Hunger Games trilogy takes place in post-apocalyptic America, in the not-too-distant future. Each year, twenty-four children are chosen to participate in the "Hunger Games" a deadly form of Survivor. They are forced by the government to participate, in an effort to discourage rebellion. Each year, a new arena is created--some contain oceans and jungles, or live volcanoes, or poisonous food sources. The games are televised and watching is mandatory for all citizens. The games only end when one child is left alive.

When Katniss Everdeen and her friend Peeta Mellark are forced to participate, it changes their lives and their world forever. Their actions in the games set off sparks that engender chain reactions around the country. Soon, they must decide who their friends are and what side they are on. As war breaks out, their efforts to escape violence become more and more futile. Eventually they must choose to fight or face certain death.

These books contain disturbingly graphic scenes of violence, torture, and war, as well as futuristic mutated animals, bred to kill. There are also some romantic overtones in the books. Peeta has been in love with Katniss for as long as he can remember. She feels drawn to him, but is still loyal to her best friend and hunting partner, Gale. Katniss and Peeta share a bed often, for comfort and to ward off nightmares, but are not sexually intimate. There is a lot of kissing, but most of it is staged for the television audience.

Despite the disturbing themes and dark overtones, Collins' characters are people you like and care about. The more you read, the more invested in their future you become, and the harder it is to put the books down. Also, the books would be an excellent choice to begin discussions about war, violence, and post-traumatic stress syndrome. If you have time, I strongly recommend reading this series with the teens in your life. However, I would closely monitor the age and maturity level of your teens when allowing them to read the series.

For those of you who don't have time to read the books, but still want to discuss them with your teens, I've listed pros and cons surrounding specific issues, but this list does include plot spoilers.

ISSUE: Violence is rampant, both in the Hunger Games - where contestants must kill or be killed - and in the war, where people are shot, blown up and tortured.

PRO: Collins does nothing to glorify war or present it as a fun game. She also refuses to portray either characters or governments in black and white terms. She shows good people doing terrible things to survive, and neither the government in power nor the rebel forces are above killing children if it advances their cause. In this way she shows us the ambiguity of war. We also see, at the end of the day, soldiers on both sides of any conflict are simply people trying to survive.

CON: The images of violence and death are disturbing and graphic. Collins is descriptive, and I was in tears more than once while reading each of the three books.

ISSUE: While Collins never names it, many of her characters suffer from post-traumatic stress disorder.

PRO: This series could be extremely helpful for teens who either have PTSD or who have loved ones who are suffering with it. More and more American soldiers returning from the Middle East exhibit post-traumatic stress symptoms, and Collins does a good job showing us why.

CON: Many characters deal with PTSD through self-medicating with drugs and alcohol. Collins makes every effort to show characters lying in their own vomit, wasting away, and suffering because of their dependence on chemicals. Although realistic, few of Collins' characters learn any healthy coping skills.

ISSUE: Romantic situations are portrayed with a sensual tone.

PRO: Katniss' confusion about her feelings for her friend, Gale, and her fellow contestant Peeta, could help adults talk to teens about romance and physical intimacy. It is obvious kissing and sharing a bed, however staged or platonic, confuses Katniss even more.

CON: Katniss seems to rely on Gale or Peeta, but has a hard time standing on her own, or making choices without them.


What I Like About this Series: I like the way Collins unequivocally shows us how horrible violence and war are. Katniss and Peeta begin the games full of hope, but the series ends by presenting broken people with scars that will never go away.

I also like the way Collins refuses to write the predictable young adult novel with mostly happy endings. More often than not, I finished reading a chapter with a gasp or tears. In this way, Collins refuses to allow us to gloss over the horrible realities of war. These books left me thinking about their messages long after I finished reading the series.

What I Dislike: In the last chapter of book three, it feels as if Collins ran out of time or pages. She dismisses Gale with a sentence, and Peeta suddenly overcomes being psychologically programmed to kill Katniss. Collins subtly implies Katniss and Peeta consummate their relationship, and Katniss finally declares her love for him. However, these events happen too quickly, even though I was pleased the epilogue showed Peeta and Katniss with their children fifteen years later.

Age Appeal: Young Adult (14 and up), but I would say even older in many cases

Publisher Info: Scholastic, 2010; ISBN:978-0545265355; Hardcover (Box Set), 384-400 pages, $53.97

Buy it at Amazon.com for $28.88.

Special Info: At the end of book three, we learn some of the victors of the Hunger Games were routinely forced to choose between selling their bodies for sexual use, or witnessing one of their loved ones die.

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15 comments:

Jill Stanish said...

I was disappointed by the "Very Good" rating. This doesn't really sound like a book that would pass the Philippians 4:8 test.

Erin said...

Jill,

You make a good point. I guess it would depend on your purpose in reading the book. As a former high school English teacher, I would use these books to tie in to themes surrounding war and violence (say in an American lit. class), but as a Christian mom, I can see being hesitant to encourage my children to read the series.

In today's culture, many teens simply accept violence in video games, movies, and even war. They often take violence for granted. These books make you understand real-life violence has horrible, long-lasting effects.

I hope this clarifies my rating--while not a pleasant series, the books do a good job of getting kids to think about the culture we live in.

Thanks for reading CCBR and for your comments!

Erin

Mike Blyth said...

Thanks for your review; I think it's spot on. I agree with your comment that parents should be cautious about younger teens reading it; I'm quite surprised that the publisher lists its interest level as grades 6 to 8.

One other prominent cluster of themes to discuss with kids includes power, wealth, poverty, exploitation, justice, and governance. In my view, it is these rather than the surface story of children killing children that could be really great for serious discussion not only with teens but with other adults.

Erin said...

Thanks Mike. I think you are right--you could study these books on so many levels. I am, however, concerned when children in the middle grades are being encouraged to read these books. I think it is important to ask children to wait to read them until they are older.

Thanks for reading CCBR, Mike! Erin

Anonymous said...

Hi,

I'm a 19 year old Christian girl and I liked these books alot. A friend of mine then told me that they were demonic and I freaked out! But by reading your review here, it has really helped. There are both good and bad sides to reading this book. Personally, I was already struggling with depression when I started reading these and afterwards I wasn't any worse, but I was able to accept that the way I was feeling was okay, that I didn't have to hide from it. No, I haven't been to war, I've just been living my life but some days, when your struggling, everythings hard. Reading these books helped me accept that I wasn't okay and moved me to a place where I can get help.

April said...

Thank you for posting this review. I am almost through book 1 because my son had come home talking about wanting to read it and I had to know what it was about. I personally like the book, but I am old enough to deal with the distrubing images it causes and I am able to see God in a lot of the pages, however I am unsure my 10 year old son would be able to do that. Hence, why I am reading it and why I am reading reviews from other Christian moms.

Meg Johnson said...

I just finished The Hunger Games. I have been a Christian since I was 14 and am now 37. I recall reading Lord of The Flies in middle school and decided then I never wanted to read anything like it again. This is not unlike Lord of the Flies as children are killing children. However, in Lord of the Flies the children are "saved" from their savage island. I cannot stomach anymore books in this series as I have been informed that there is no "saving grace" or redemption. I am beyond horiffied as this book is in the library at my daughters Christian School. There are many classics and great Christian authors that I do not think it is neccessary to promote this in our Christian schools. That is what the public library, Barnes and Noble, and Books a Million are for. This is the darkest book I have ever read. And the bible speaks of light in the darkness. How can we be the light if we are the very ones supporting this dark grim literature???

Kristina Seleshanko said...

Thank you for your thoughts, Meg. I understand your feelings. But please note that our "Mainstream Author" highlights aren't necessarily about recommending books to Christians. I think the reviewer, Erin, made it clear these books are both violent and disturbing. But her post is helpful for parents who discover their kids are reading these books, with or without permission. Erin helps prepare parents for what their kids might be reading, and offers insights into positive aspects to highlight and difficult areas to talk to their kids about.

Tanya Dennis said...

My husband took note of these books recently because all three volumes have been listed at the top of bestseller lists. He wondered what the big deal was. I've not read them, but directed him to your review. He found this post so helpful! THANK YOU.

Anonymous said...

Philippians 4:8- Finally, brethren, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is of good repute, if there is any excellence and if anything worthy of praise, dwell on these things. Enough said.... and I really wish parents wouldn't just look at the first book in order to make their decision because as we know Harry Potter went from PG to PG-13 and then because people had already let their kids watch or read the prior movies or books let kids that weren't even 13 see the movie. Please try and think ahead parents this is just the first movie. Think ahead parents, and by the way my school is promoting the books in their book fair at the elementary level. My daughter is 10and says everyone is reading them in her class.-Really??? Meanwhile everyday we have kids going into the schools killing other kids.

Erin said...

Anonymous,

As parents we certainly want to be careful what our children read and are exposed to. I agree. . . ten is much too young to process these books. I do want to make it clear, however, that author Susanne Collins takes a very clear stand AGAINST violence, and shows the dreadful effects violence has when we allow it to become part of our society.

You will notice we have taken the ratings off of our mainstream author reviews. We don't want to promote controversial books, but we want parents to be informed, in the event their children do read the books at school or at a friend's house. I hope our reviews will help readers who don't have a chance to read books before their children read them.

Thanks for reading CCBR! Erin

Anonymous said...

The more I hear about these books the further my jaw drops that anyone thinks these books are OK for any child and by child I say anyone under 18. Adults can read any trash they want but what we tout to our children is our responsibility.

This blogs Special Note:

"At the end of book three, we learn some of the victors of the Hunger Games were routinely forced to choose between selling their bodies for sexual use, or witnessing one of their loved ones die."

This is my new bit of info today as I have not read the books. OK people, keep telling me the virtues of these books and I'll just throw out this little tidbit. Before this it was the dog mauling. Child's play, right?

loyalbooks said...

I am right in the middle of this controversy of the latest rush of dystopian “young adult” literature. A similar book was chosen for read aloud at my child’s middle school. In general, this is not a genre my kids are drawn to, so it was my first exposure to what is being marketed to tweens and teens.
I purchased the book my school was promoting and I only made if half way through. The violence made me sick. Incidentally, the book in question was touted as “if you love Hunger Games, you’ll love this,” thus my online search for Hunger Games reviews. I know it is BIG among the students.
I am really struggling with the whole concept of using these books as a learning tool. I often hear the argument that kids of this age already see and know so much violence… I really don’t understand that line of thinking at all. First of all it isn’t true in many cases. We have always been very careful about the kind of movies and video games our kids watch- and I would add, I hold myself to a similar standard.
Secondly, I can’t ignore the Phil 4:8 scripture. I see it as advice straight from God. Advice to me. Advice for us. The Bible does not gloss over of the atrocities of war, or man’s inhumanity to man, but here is this verse telling us to dwell on things that are pure and lovely and worthy of praise. If indeed we are surrounded by violence, atrocities, and injustices, should we also dwell on it as entertainment? If we are unwillingly subjected to it, should we willingly subject our minds to more? These are the questions I am asking? I’m still trying to get my mind around this issue.
I have not avoided historical books about things like slavery, the Holocaust, war, etc. when it comes to my kids, but there seems to be a different dynamic to a fictional book that so draws the reader in and the main ‘heroes’ are fully engaged in atrocities violence, as opposed to historical events that we look back on and as a community, condemn.
I agree that informative reviews are very helpful, as most of us can’t keep up with all the literature, and as the blogger says, some kids are reading books without our permission, so we need to keep informed, and I am glad for the bloggers review.
One thing I do tell my kids: the publishers’ suggested age appropriate levels are purely market driven. They are not decided by someone who loves them, and most likely, not by anyone who has a Biblical world view.

canaanford said...

I have been looking through some reviews for a recent talk that I will be conducting at my youth group this week. I am sixteen and attend a small Christian school where anyone who touches Twilight and Harry Potter is basically shunned by the plethora of pastors kids. I have grown up in a very strong, particularly sheltered Christian home, and yet I loved the Hunger Games books and was very excited when my youth leader asked me to lead a discussion about the pros and cons of the book.

I found this review very accurate and helpful, refreshing too. Many peoplem will quote scriptures (which I would never dispute) but something that I have often found with many of my pk friends is that they criticize books like this for violence and morbidity and yet They go home and watch R- rated movies for sexuality, violence, language, etcetera. I'm not saying that everyone who criticizes is like this but I know that it isn't rare. I also think that compared to some other teen novels that I've tried to read, it was very romantically clean and well written. And though I think everyone on the page has agreed that it is not suitable for Tweens, I think that it is a good book for teenagers to read. Teens often don't understand war and its effects, and I think discussion with parents or friends would be conducive to expanding life experience as well as further their understanding of war and poverty among other things. Once again, I appreciate the author for putting this review up.

Erin said...

Hello Canaanford and Loyalbooks,

Thanks so much for your comments. This has been such a huge controversy, but I am glad my post can help readers who are trying to decide whether the books are appropriate or useful.

I agree the books can be helpful in teaching about war and violence, and I would certainly not recommend them for middle school. Caananford, I am glad to help with your presentation!

Also, parents should remember, if your child is assigned a book you feel is inappropriate, you may request an alternate assignment. Usually, schools will excuse a student to go to the library during the hours the book will be discussed, and teachers will modify assignments to fit the other book. (I taught in public schools for several years.)

Thanks so much for reading CCBR! Blessings! Erin