Monthly Archives: March 2012

Hunger Games for Youngsters, Part III

So, I’ve been asking this question, in various forms, to various people (kids, teenagers, adults):  “Should 5th graders read The Hunger Games?  Should they see the movie?”  They are reading it, in huge numbers at my school (in my last class of 20 5th grade girls, 11 had read it and 4 had seen the movie, and that seems like a pretty typical breakdown), but should they be?

Here’s an attempt at summarizing and analyzing what I’ve heard.

1.  Reactions from the younger kids themselves

The 5th and 6th graders who have read the books are not disturbed and upset by them, on the whole.  A few girls have said that they were a little disturbed, but for the most part, they are not having trouble.   I think the kids who would have trouble, and I’m sure there are many, are steering clear of the book, either by their choice or parental choice.  I’ve had a few kids ask whether they should read it, while sending me a very clear unspoken message that they want me to steer them away from it.  They are feeling pressure from peers to read it, though.

The peer pressure element is interesting.  It has come up in several conversations.  One girls said her brother (also in 5th grade) had begged her to read it.  A seventh grader said, ” My sister [5th grader] read it because it was the popular thing to do.  It’s like a peer pressure thing.  It’s not pressure, but it’s the thing everyone is doing.”  I’ve heard a LOT of “You HAVE to read it!” declarations from 5th graders to other 5th graders.

Here’s what I think about these kids reading the book:  I think that the horror of the premise (kids killing kids?  are you kidding me?) is beyond most of the younger kids reading this book.  It is so out there, so fantastical, it isn’t real.  They aren’t scared or freaked out by it because it’s more like reading about Lord Voldemort than about something that might possibly happen.  While I tend to read dystopian fiction as a sort of warning about what might happen in the future if we aren’t careful, these kids read it as pure fantasy.  They love the action and suspense of the book, and don’t really think too much about the premise.  I’m sure there are ones who do “get it,” but I haven’t talked to any young kid who expressed any sort of horror.  It has been all excitement about the action.

The movie is a different story.  I got really mixed reactions on that.  Obviously, since it just came out, I have a small sample size to work with, but there are kids who love the movie and kids who have been upset by the movie.

The most interesting comment I got was from a 5th grader this morning, a girl who had loved the book:  “When you read the book, you can visualize it in the way you can handle it.”  (I asked her to clarify, and I didn’t write down her exact words, but she basically said that you only imagine what you can handle, that your brain protects you from picturing something you can’t cope with.)  She said she had watched a youtube video of the scene from the movie where Rue dies, and said, “I was freezing cold for like the next hour.  I forgot that it was fake.”  That’s a pretty common reaction to trauma.

I also heard variations of, “It’s fine, unless you get freaked out easily.  If you get scared by Pirates of the Caribbean or Mission Impossible, you can’t read it or watch it.  If you can handle violence, you’d be fine.”  Lots of kids talked about how the movie doesn’t show the worst violence.  “It doesn’t focus on the killing.   It’s more focused on before and after the killing.”  One boy said, “One point in the movie was more violent than the book [the part with the wild doglike creatures].  I heard a bunch of people scream, and one person started crying.”  I asked if he was scared, and he said no.  A colleague wrote, “The violence was not gratuitous and could have been much more gory and explicit, but it was still pretty rough at times (as evidenced by the bawling 10 year old sitting next to us during a death scene).”

A few kids talked about vastly preferring the book because of how the book gives you Katniss’s thoughts.  “I thought it was really good, but they left out some major parts and a lot of the book was from Katniss’s brain’s point of view, and they couldn’t really do that.  I still liked it, but I didn’t like it as much because of that.”  One boy talked about the book being a more “full” experience than the movie.

One girl said, “I hunt, so it wasn’t that big of a deal.  I see this stuff, so it wasn’t a big deal.”  This comment really highlights to me how these kids aren’t seeing it as realistic at all.  I don’t think this kid would think it was “no big deal” to see an actual human killed, but the gore didn’t bother her because she has been exposed to gore via hunting.  The characters are more like animals than actual people.

2.  Reactions from slightly older kids (grade 7 and 8)

I was really surprised by the conversation I had with four of my book club kids.  Three are in 7th grade, and one in 8th.  These are hardcore readers, and all of them have read and really enjoyed the book, and three had seen the movie.

Asked whether 5th graders should read the book, three of them were emphatic that younger kids should NOT read the book.  One said, “It’s too violent.”  But then another said, “I don’t think it’s too violent, but the concept is too. . . mature.” The first agreed, “Yeah, not too violent.  Too mature.”  For these kids, the premise is not complete fantasy.  It’s disturbing to think about kids killing other kids, to think about a future and a government that would involve something so horrible.  And since they get how sick it is, they don’t want little kids reading it.  “I would NEVER let my brother [4th grade] read it.  NEVER.”

I’ve seen this before with other books.  Kids can be very protective of younger kids, of that innocence.  I think that for many 7th graders, there’s this sense of yourself that has come where you feel like you just aren’t a kid anymore, that you have lost some level of innocence.  And there’s a nostalgia for it.  The 5th grader wants very much to be older and read the books for older kids, and the 7th grader realizes that they can never be little again and kind of longs for that time.  (Of course, there are also ways in which the 5th grader wants to stay little, and the 7th grader wants to be in high school!  It’s hard to be that age!)

But here’s where I was surprised.  I asked about whether 5th graders should see the movie, and the responses flipped!  The one kid who had said yes to the book said, “No, no, no!  Not the movie.  The movie is too gross.  Too much blood for a 5th grader.  I would never take my brother [4th grade] to that movie!”  And the three who had been adamant that kids should not read the book were completely fine with the movie.  “The movie is fine.  My brother in 4th grade saw the movie, but I wouldn’t let him read it.”  They talked about how the movie cuts away from the really violent parts.  “It would not be rated PG-13 if it was violent.”  And listen to this: “If you’re reading the book, you imagine stuff in your head that’s not in the movie.”  The 5th grader above expressed the same sentiment, only for her, it was a gentler version in her head.  For the 8th grader, it was worse!

3. Reactions from older kids and adults

“Don’t take your daughter to see the movie.  It was too intense for my sister [6th grade].”

“We just got back from seeing [the movie] and I would be hesitant to bring a pre-teen to see it.”

“It was too much for 5th grade.  I wouldn’t let my 5th grade daughter read it or see it.”

“[Husband] and [13-year-old son] thought the violence in the movie was not bad; [10-year-old daughter] and I thought it was far worse in the movie than in the book. I wondered if the male gender imagines and sees violence in their head more than we do?”

“I thought the violence was well played because it was quick or more audio than visual or so blurry you couldn’t tell who was winning in hand to hand combat.   The whole premise of the book is that the games are not a good thing and even more than the books, the movie stressed the overall hatred for the violence of the games.”

“I do not think that kids are able to wrap their brains around how absolutely sick and twisted the underlying theme of this book is. The plot is so upsetting and disturbing to me that I had a hard time reading the first two chapters. My opinion is that adults are able to see how demented it truly is and can read it for what it is worth. I think kids (sorry to generalize- I know there are PLENTY of teenagers do not fall into this category) are not mature enough to comprehend how deeply disturbing the plot is, but are hooked on the characters, the excitement of the ‘games’ and the suspense it all brings.”

Overall, adults are all over the place with their opinions.  Some have been super excited to take their own kids to the movies and are anxiously awaiting the next installment.  Some are absolutely horrified by the fact that kids this young are reading the books and seeing the movie.  Most would say, “It depends on the kid.”

Which I will end with, because that’s very much how I feel about it!  It absolutely depends on the kid.

Time to find something else to obsess about!

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More on Hunger Games for youngsters

A colleague came to chat with me today about the Hunger Games movie, and we had an interesting (I thought) conversation about that difference between print and screen violence I mentioned in my last post.  For me as an adult reading the book, my mind creates images that are probably pretty close to whatever is going to show up on the big screen.  We all have the experience of frustration when a character doesn’t look like we imagined them or the plot is messed with in some way, but in general, assuming the director hasn’t taken huge liberties, there isn’t a dramatic difference.  I’ve seen loads of movies with violence and action and suspense and gore and all that jazz, so when someone stabs someone in a book, what I picture in my head is pretty much the way it looks when someone in a movie stabs someone.

But for my kid, who might a bit atypical in terms of lack of exposure to violence on the screen (big or little; we’ve never had cable, and she has had no interest in anything even remotely violent except the slapstick violence of Home Alone), I’m guessing that what her brain filled in while reading the book was a heck of a lot milder and unformed than what the movie will present.   I don’t know that she has ever seen someone get stabbed on screen (not because of my protection, by the way, but just because of her interests).  She is probably unusual in this regard, but I’m not sure how unusual.

So I haven’t got a clear idea of what a typical 5th or 6th grader creates in their head while reading a book like The Hunger Games, and I have no idea how they will handle the movie.  It’s interesting to me, though, to think about it in this way, because it explains some of the popularity with my younger students.  If the violence that is quite shocking to us as adults is processed in a very different way for them, I can see how their focus would be on the suspenseful plot.  The violence isn’t real to them in the same way.

I think that’s how I want to view it, rather than to think they have seen so much screen violence already, they are immune to it, both in print and on screen.  That thought actually scares me.

I really do not know how I feel about this.  I’m very curious to hear feedback from my younger students about the movie, and that will probably help me figure out what I really think/feel about it.

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Interesting. . .

If you are a Hunger Games fan (or a Hunger Games detractor), this article might be of interest.  Apparently, a Japanese book and movie with an identical premise existed years before the Hunger Games.  Hmmm. . .

Because of the movie coming out tonight, I have been hearing a lot about the Hunger Games.  A fellow faculty member was in the library a few days ago, wondering out loud about whether she should allow her own daughter to read the books (the kid is asking to read them).  There was a small group of 5th grade girls in the library working on something, so we asked them if they had read it, and what they thought about it, and whether it scared them or kept them up at night.  I had to leave mid-conversation because another student needed me, but what I did hear was interesting:  out of 4 girls, 3 had read at least the first book (1 had read all three, more than once).  The one who had read all 3 was completely unfazed by the violence.  One of the others was a bit iffy about it–at first said it was no problem, but then admitted to being a bit freaked out by it.   I had to leave before the third girl weighed in.

I’m kind of stunned by how many 5th graders have read the book.  I knew it was filtering down and younger kids were reading it, but I am still shocked.  But, in the interest of full disclosure, my own 5th grader did read it this past weekend.  She is sensitive to violence and had no interest in reading it for a long time because of that, but as more and more of her close friends have read it (and books are a big topic of conversation in her friend group, apparently), she became curious.  She had read and LOVED Legend by Marie Lu, which doesn’t have as much violence but has a similar dystopian theme (but without the kid-on-kid violence that is, to me, the most disturbing aspect of Hunger Games).  So I gave her the go-ahead, with the usual rule that if she hits something she is uncomfortable with, she can close the book and come talk to me about it, and she doesn’t have to read another word.  In the end, she liked Hunger Games, but wasn’t begging to read the second one right away.  (She just followed it up with Wonder by RJ Palacio, and had a lot more enthusiasm for that feel-good story.)

The question now for many parents, I’m guessing, is whether to let kids see the movie.  I don’t have a final answer yet for myself.  On-screen violence is, in my opinion, a whole different world from reading about violence in print.  I’m not sure I even want to see the movie myself for that reason!  Common Sense Media’s review of the movie might be helpful to folks trying to decide what to do here.  My gut right now is telling me to hold off, wait for when my own kid is older and watch it together on DVD then.

If you have thoughts on this, please comment!  I know this could become quite a lively debate!

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The Song You Will Know Soon, If You Don’t Already

I think I have overheard this song coming out of student laptops approximately 876 million times in the last 24 hours.  (Okay, more like 10, but it FEELS like 876 million.)  I haven’t seen anything like this since Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (and I still haven’t recovered from that).  The upper schoolers are all about Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe,” and this means the middle schoolers will be all about it soon.  Very soon.  Click the link below to see what I understand to be a “spoof” video of the song, featuring Justin Bieber, Selena Gomez, and other famous folks revered by tweens these days.

Carly Rae Jepsen’s “Call Me Maybe” on youtube.

As I was composing this post, yet another student started playing the song.  CRAZY.

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Wonder by R.J. Palacio

There was a moment, about a quarter of the way into Wonder, when I stopped breathing, felt like I had been sucker-punched in the gut.  Up until that point, I was enjoying the novel and thought it was good, but I had this distracting feeling in the back of my mind that it just wasn’t quite realistic enough.  Let’s just say I was wrong.

Wonder is the story of August Pullman’s 5th grade year at Beecher Prep, told not only through his voice, but also those of his sister and her friends, and his classmates.  August would like nothing more than to be seen as the normal kid he feels he is, but he knows that is not likely to happen.  He has a genetic birth defect (actually a rare combination of defects) that has caused his face to look shockingly different from a “normal” face, even after multiple surgeries.  Auggie says, “I won’t describe what I look like.  Whatever you’re thinking, it’s probably worse.”  When he goes out in public, people look away, whisper, stare, or sometimes even scream.  But aside from the difference in his appearance, Auggie is a pretty normal kid–he loves Star Wars and science; he plays with his dog; he argues with his older sister; etc.

August has never been to school before–in large part because of all of the surgeries he has had to undergo–but now he is starting middle school at a small private school.  Needless to say, it is not easy to be the new kid in middle school, but if you look as different as August does, it’s almost unimaginably difficult.  Yet, R.J. Palacio does, I think, an admirable job of trying to imagine what it’s like for August, as well as for his family and classmates.  There were some moments that were a bit too feel-good for me, but in the end, I was thankful for those moments.  There were certainly plenty that were not at all feel-good, and for a book written for kids (I would say it’s appropriate for ages 8 and up) about such a heavy topic, there is a real need for balance.  This is at times a sad book, but it is not a depressing book, and ultimately I would describe it as triumphant.

I’m curious to see how kids react to this book.  I think many of them will like it for the well-paced story and humor, and will take something away from it as well.   Highly recommended for kids who like realistic fiction, and probably a good book to use as a class read for talking about issues like bullying and prejudice.

UPDATE:  Kid response to this so far is really good.  I am reading the first few chapters in class, and getting a fair number of holds on it from both boys and girls (6th graders this week; will have 5th next week).  My own kid (5th grade) read it and loved it.

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The Fault in Our Stars by John Green

The Fault in Our Stars got bumped to the top of my to-read list because one of my students, a 5th grade boy who is a self-professed nerd and huge fan of Green’s work on Vlogbrothers (which I confess I haven’t yet spent much time looking at), declared so sweetly and intensely and repeatedly his love for it.  After saying to this young man three times, “I’m sorry, I haven’t gotten around to reading it yet,” I really couldn’t live with myself any longer.  So I picked it up at last this morning, and spent the day soaking it in.

First, let me say that it is a rare 5th grade boy who will appreciate this book (I am dying to hear more about what he loved about it), but oh my, I can think of many, many older middle schoolers and upper schoolers who will devour it and come back asking for more stuff just like it.  There is some sex (not explicit, but the main characters are 16 and 17 years old, and it is part of their world) and some language and some heavy-duty subject matter (love and death, in particular), but in my opinion, all of those things in this particular book add to the beauty and reality of the novel.   This is not an easy, light read, but at the same time, it drew me in quickly and I flew through it one day.  I laughed out loud at several points, and teared up at several others.  I think if I had read it at age 14, I would have loved it even more.  It’s cliche to say it, but the novel is heartbreakingly funny and sad.  Hazel (the narrator) would cringe at that description, but it’s the truth.

The basic plot:  the narrator, Hazel, has had terminal cancer since she was 13 and is (understandably) quite depressed about her situation.  She meets Augustus, who is in remission from the bone cancer that took his leg, at a support group meeting, and the friendship/romance that develops between them is the focus on the novel.  Both Hazel and Augustus are wicked smart, funny, quirky, and thoughtful, and as a reader I kind of fell in love with both of them as they fell in love with each other.

I don’t know what it’s like to have cancer as a young person, or even to know someone in that situation.  I do have a close friend with a terminal illness, and I thought of her a lot as I read this book.  She doesn’t like to read books about people dying, so I’ll never know if I’m right, but I had the thought many times that things Hazel said would probably ring true for my friend, and I felt like maybe I came away with a slightly better understanding of what it might be like to be in my friend’s shoes.  And isn’t that what great books do–shine a little light on the mysteries of life that we ourselves haven’t experienced, or make us feel a bit less lonely in the ones we have.

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