Okay first off, I am not ignoring The Hunger Games. I have it out from the library right now so that I can do a full review. In the mean time, I will strongly, strongly, urge you to read it personally before you recommend it to any non-adult type people. I would also say that if after you are done reading it you still find yourself wanting to recommend it to an eight year old, to please be completely upfront with the child’s parent about the level of violence in the series. I know it’s a hit movie with a relatively nonthreatening PG-13 rating but I will remind you all that books and movies are often different and that families are very different in what they are comfortable allowing their children to read or watch. And also, there are other amazing things you can recommend for the eight year old which are exciting and interesting and age appropriate. If you are a parent and you’re looking for guidance, the best advice I can give is to read the book itself or hold out for my review before granting permission, particularly if your child is still in elementary school.
In classrooms across my district, copies of The Hunger Games are appearing on the desks of third and fourth grade students. Which means this was a conversation that I could not avoid. I’ve always been really upfront with my students about books, letting them know exactly why I think they should or shouldn’t read something, because I think and hope that it will help them become critical readers one day. That hopefully they’ll be able to make the judgment call themselves about whether a book has merit or is just for fun or is too hard or not their taste. And with all that in mind, I sat down my fourth grade group of students for an honest discussion about The Hunger Games and why I, as an adult they know and trust might advise them to wait until they’re older before reading it.
In case you’re unfamiliar, the basic premise of the book is that children must participate in a televised fight to the death. That is exactly as far as I got before one student started crying. So clearly she didn’t need much convincing to skip it. But the rest of my class actually had really great insights on why we needed to talk about it. I have of course, paraphrased them beyond recognition because my memory is a bit sketchy and we had this chat a week or so ago, but the heart of the issues remains the same.
Kid Raised Issue 1: When kids watch or hear something that is not okay again and again, they might start to think it’s okay.
Adult’s Take: No, I don’t think they’re going to start re-enacting the Hunger Games, but a whole lot of studies have been done on desensitization towards violence, enough to know that it’s a real thing. Many of the studies focus on video game violence, but I don’t think it’s a long shot to include violent books as a concern.
Kid’s Issue #2: Sometimes, I’m totally okay with the level of violence or scary stuff. But then something happens that’s more violent or scary and it’s not like I can just unread that.
Adult’s Take: This issue of no give backs is a real one and one I recall from my own childhood. I read Hiroshima as required for school when I was in eighth grade and it affected me very strongly. I carried those images in my mind (still do) because once it’s out there you can’t unknow it. I did of course counsel them to go tell an adult if this happens and talk about it, but in my overprotective way, I’d rather they didn’t have to feel that way at all.
Kid’s Issue #3: Sometimes I’m totally fine about something and I tell my parents that I can handle it because I really believe I can. But later, I have nightmares or I get really worried and can’t stop thinking about it.
Adult’s Take: Kids are counting on us to set boundaries for them, to help them decide what they can and can’t handle. It’s a big burden to place on a child’s shoulders – Are you okay with this? While I certainly want them to be able to make that judgment for themselves someday, for pre-teens they simply may not be ready to choose what’s best for them.
Kid’s Issue #4: Sometimes kids do things because their friends are doing it even if they know it’s wrong or not the best idea. Lots of kids are reading this now and it can be hard to be left out. Sometimes I make bad decisions for myself when I don’t want to be left out. I might not be honest with my parents about how something makes me feel if I want to be allowed to keep doing it.
Adult Take: Kids need our help knowing how to deal with peer pressure, even if it’s in dealing with a cool book. Making sure your kid knows whether or not they can read it and your reasons will help. Going over things they can tell their friends is even better. If you’re dealing with a particularly peer-pressure prone child, consider taking the blame for them, you are the grown up after all.
Things kids can say:
I’m saving that for later.
I’m not really interested in that kind of book.
My parents won’t let me.
I think I’ll like it better when I’m older.
I’m really into (insert name of age appropriate book here) right now, so I’m going to be reading that instead.
Kid’s Issue #5: I don’t know that I can understand a book that’s meant for high school kids.
Adult’s Take: My students have been listening to me! With their advanced vocabularies and great reading comprehension they can often understand books written for much older audiences. But they also know that comprehension goes much deeper than just being able to tell what is happening. It means being able to predict what will happen next based on plot and on genre. It means analyzing the author’s purpose and examining the theme. It means knowing what techniques the author uses to achieve the desired effect and critiquing how well that is done. It means making connections to real world events and problems as well as other literature. They know that doing all that means putting a lot of work into a book, and that sometimes, that work will be easier to do if they are just a little bit older.
In another few months, another book will be the latest, greatest, hottest, coolest. The Hunger Games can wait. I will be writing a full review (either this month or next) so you can decide if it’s right for your audience, but for now, I urge you to use caution and make sure you are fully informed before you make any decisions.