Wednesday, September 28, 2011

The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins

iconiconI've had this book on my "must read soon" shelf on my Nook for months, but I finally got around to reading it this week — mainly because this is Banned Books Week, and The Hunger Games was one of the top 10 challenged books in 2010.  I always try to read at least one challenged book to celebrate this week, and usually end up reading others on the list later on.

As far as challenged books go, I think I enjoyed The Hunger Games more than any other book I've ever read for Banned Books Week.  I mean, WOW.  This book is a tense ride that grips you from beginning to end.

The book presents a futuristic, dystopian view of America, where a capitol has been established in the center of 12 "districts."  Each one produces something different for the capitol, and depending on what they produce, some of the districts are much poorer than others.  Katniss comes from a district that mines coal, and is therefore very poor — starving to death is a very real threat for those in her district.  Since her father was killed in a mining accident when she was just a child, Katniss has learned to scratch out a living for her mother, sister, and herself, mostly by poaching.

And then there are the games.  The Hunger Games are a punishment for a rebellion that happened years and years ago.  Every year, a lottery chooses 2 kids in every district, a boy and a girl, to come to the Capitol and fight, gladiator-style, against all the other districts' chosen kids.  The last kid alive wins.  The entire thing is televised and viewed as entertainment, but it's also a sinister reminder that the Capitol is in control.

Katniss initially volunteers to protect her 12-year-old sister, who is chosen in the lottery.  She knows she has a better chance at surviving than Prim, since she has been hunting all of these years to support her family.  She goes into the games trying to stay detached, knowing she is going to have to kill or be killed, but as the games progress, she comes to view her situation a little... differently.  That's all I'm going to say, because I don't want to spoil the novel by revealing some of the critical changes that take place in Katniss's outlook.  Suffice it to say that I sobbed my eyes out in the cafe at Barnes & Noble while reading one of those critical scenes.

I already knew that this book was challenged due to the violence, but I was surprised to learn that it was called "sexually explicit" too.  Uh, sure, if kissing is consider sexually explicit...  But while that argument may be BS, you can't really argue that this book isn't violent.  I've heard people say that the violence is "vague," that the book tends to "fade to black" or not describe it, and honestly, I don't think that's true at all.  The violence isn't described in every gory little detail, but it is described.  It's generally a quick description, because that's the way the main character, Katniss, narrates — she is very terse and to the point about everything.  Having lived a hard life, emotions and even taking the time to present something in proper detail is simply something she can't afford.

But I think this is what gets to the heart of the matter.  It's not the violence that those who challenge this book are objecting to — teens read plenty of books far more violent and scary than these books.  Heck, many kids movies (PG and PG-13) are more violent and scarier than these books.  But what I think is so shocking to some people is the hard, matter-of-fact way that Katniss describes everything, including the violence she has to defend herself against, and even perpetrate, in order to stay alive.

The thing is, there are plenty of places in the world, and even in our country, where kids grow up on the brink of starvation, learning violence in order to keep themselves alive.  So what are the challenges against this book supposed to make us think — that parents don't want their kids to know what humans are capable of?  Is it really the "scary" violence that parents are opposed to — or the idea that their kids might develop empathy for people who are forced to live this way?  Because, despite Katniss's rather hardened outlook, that's what this book is getting at: that it's the system that is to blame, while the people should be empathized with.

Interesting thoughts.  Mostly it just infuriates me any time that parents think they have the right to control not only what their kids read, but everyone else's kids, too.  My parents never told me what I could or couldn't read, and I devoured pretty much every book I could get my hands on, reading adult romance and horror by the time I was 12 or 13.  I didn't have nightmares, didn't torture bunny rabbits, didn't turn into a serial murderer or a prostitute.  I did, however, bring my passion for reading and my love of learning — and my empathy — with me into adulthood.

Have you read The Hunger Games?  What are your thoughts on it being challenged — and what are your thoughts on banning books in general?

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