As the young adult librarian at the Shrewsbury Public Library, I get asked many questions over the appropriateness of certain titles for youth. Never has this been so true than with the latest cultural phenomenon from author Suzanne Collins. Her Hunger Games trilogy (which includes The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay) has been a bestseller on every list it qualifies to be on.
I've spoken to HG fanatics who were aged 8 to 88. With the movie based on the first book just a few weeks away, the popularity of this series is only going to increase. I haven't seen such a broad appeal for a book series since Harry Potter. Collins has created a fascinating near-future world to tell her story of youth battling to the death in a government-sanctioned, televised competition. It's gripping and exciting, but it's also become quite controversial.
The question of appropriateness is obviously something very objective—I'm not here to tell you how to parent your children. I'm here to give you a little 'spoiler-free' insight on the popular series so you can make an informed decision when answering the 'Can I read this?' you're bound to get from the young adult(s) in your life.
Do kids really kill kids?
Yes. The premise is quite disturbing, and that is the point. In the series, children and teenagers that live in the fictional nation of Panem are picked, by lottery, to battle in an arena until only one is left alive. These annual 'Hunger Games' as they are called are to punish the people for uprising once in the past and to prove that the government in place now is all powerful. Every resident is forced to watch the gruesome ritual as it plays out live on large screens across the nation. Readers specifically follow the journey from the perspective of one of the contestants—a 16-year-old named Katniss Everdeen.
How graphic is the violence?
One of the things that really works both for and against this series is how vague Suzanne Collins is with her death scenes. She rarely writes anything graphic at all. Many of the deaths are just touched on as the focus remains with those that are still alive. Now, depending on the child, this can be a good or bad thing. If your child has already been exposed to mature content of a violent nature, they might be able to imagine things far more scathing than they are actually portrayed in the book. This might make the experience far more disturbing. If your child has been guarded more, they might not catch on or be able to fill in the blanks as well, making the story flow at more of a surface level. As an adult reading the series, I remember creating my own images of certain scenes and being quite shook up. I've heard of other readers who haven't been able to sleep after reading the books. On the other hand, if you tried to point out a specific part that was out of place for a young adult book, you'd have a hard time finding one.
What about sex? Profanity?
Violence is really the only thing parents will need to struggle with when choosing whether or not to give the green light to their children when it comes to The Hunger Games. There is a love triangle of sorts, but it is so tame and non-explicit, readers would probably get more offended by watching a shampoo commercial. As far as swearing, I cannot off-hand remember any. If there were some objectionable words, there weren't many at all. The only thing that I would mention in addition to the violence is a segment of the final book where one character deals with some mental problems. The matter is handled delicately, but it might be a lot to handle for some children.
The Bottom Line
Readers must wrestle with 'how far is too far' in terms of government control. How blindly will or should people follow a governing body? What will it take for an uprising? Can one person really make a difference? Each chapter sparks a new batch of questions that can be applied to the real world in some way or another. I've seen or heard HG comparisons made about everything from reality television to the Tea Party movement. The story is a fascinating springboard for discussion. I can completely understand why this book is on a number of required school reading lists.
My personal opinion would be that this series is perfect for those in Grade 9 and up, but I'm sure there are exceptions based on the maturity level of different young adults. As I always say when a parent asks about any book for their child, the best way to know if it's okay is to read it yourself. In this case, you'll probably enjoy the experience!