Category Archives: science fiction

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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Legend by Marie Lu

I picked up Legend by Marie Lu on Saturday night, read until I couldn’t keep my eyes open, and then picked it up again Sunday morning and read to the finish.  Yes, it’s one of those books where the action is so constant and fast-paced, and the plot so compelling, you just can’t put it down and can’t wait to find out what happens.  Kids are going to love this book.

The book takes place in a dystopian future, in Los Angeles.  The United States has dissolved to become two warring territories, the Republic and the Colonies.  The narration switches back and forth between June, a wealthy 15-year-old prodigy and member of the Republic military, and Day, also fifteen, who is from the slums and is the Republic’s most wanted criminal.  When June’s brother Metias is murdered, and Day is the prime suspect for the murder, she decides to hunt him down to get her revenge.  In the process, Day and June both discover disturbing things about the Republic and surprising things about each other.

There is definitely a fair amount of violence in this book, but of a milder variety than the Hunger Games trilogy.  There is romance, but aside from some “hard kissing,” there is nothing explicit.  I can tell you that, as a school librarian who loves to be able to recommend books freely to kids without having to worry a lot about content, I breathed many sighs of relief as I read this book.  There were places where other writers might have gotten more explicit when it really wasn’t needed, but Lu never did that.  The horror of the actions of government and the romantic tension are both completely evident without so many of the details that would be too much for the middle school readers who are drawn to this kind of story.  (Note: There are definitely many young middle school readers who would be upset by the violence in this book, but for ones who are not sensitive to it and are seeking it out, this is a better choice in my opinion than something like The Hunger Games.  We have been experiencing some high demand from 5th and 6th graders for these kinds of books, and within that genre, this is a relatively tame offering.  Emphasis on relatively, though, because there are a few scenes that are pretty brutal in terms of the violence, and I really would recommend this book more for the older middle schoolers and high schoolers.)

Another reason to be aware of this book: there’s going to be a movie, and if it’s at all good, it’s going to be popular.  This book is so visual and exhilarating, I really cannot wait to see it on the screen, assuming it is well done.  I don’t typically feel that way because I want to preserve my own internal vision of the book, but in this case, it’s just the right kind of book to be made into a film.  I also feel like the ending sets us up for more books, and I definitely look forward to seeing a next installment.

Update:  This went over very well in my classes this morning (I read the third chapter to them).  Two boys had already read the book and raved about it; it’s always nice to hear that actual kids have enjoyed the book!

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If You Liked The Hunger Games, You Might Like. . .

I would like to do a series of posts based on what kids might like, based on what they already know they love.  The extremely popular titles fly off our shelves so easily and build up long lists of holds, but there are always so many other great books that don’t get as much attention.

First up, since it has been so steadily in demand for two years now: The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins.  Fans of The Hunger Games series might also enjoy. . .

The Chaos Walking trilogy by Patrick Ness (The Knife of Never Letting Go, The Ask and the Answer, and Monsters of Men)   

Todd is the youngest person in a society of only men, in which everyone’s thoughts (including those of Todd’s dog Manchee) can be heard in a chaotic mass of Noise.  One day, Todd finds a space of silence in the woods, and begins a journey of discovering the history of his world and exploring its uncertain future.  The writing here is incredible—suspenseful, imaginative, and intense from the very beginning.

The Eleventh Plague by Jeff Hirsch

I mentioned this one in my last post.  My book club kids have been reading it, and seem to all agree that it’s “really good, but really dark, but not so dark in the end, but really dark.  But really good.”

The Maze Runner trilogy by James Dashner (The Maze Runner, The Scorch Trials, and The Death Cure)

Thomas wakes up in an elevator, with no memory of where he came from, and becomes part of a society of boys trapped in an enclosed space, surrounded by a maze they attempt to escape from each day.  When a girl arrives with a mysterious note, things begin to change.  This series has been raved about by pretty much every kid I’ve known who has read it.

The Books of Ember by Jeanne DuPrau (The City of Ember, The People of Sparks, The Prophet of Yonwood, and The Diamond of Darkhold)

This is a gentler version of a dystopic future that lends itself well to younger middle school readers.  A city has been created underground to preserve the human race in the event of war, but the inhabitants have no awareness of the world beyond them.  Supplies in Ember have begun to wane and the future is uncertain, when two kids discover an ancient clue that might lead to a way to survive.  Fast-paced and full of drama.

Incarceron by Catherine Fisher

From the Amazon.com review by Anne Bartholomew:  “The shifting landscapes, unexpected plot punches, and bold, brave characters found in Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron are nothing short of thrilling: fans of Garth Nix and Suzanne Collins will take to this epic, twisty fantasy instantly, but it’s also the kind of book that will draw in the most hesitant fantasy reader.”   Only a few kids have grabbed this one so far, but they have come back wanting the sequel, Sapphique.

Matched by Ally Condie

From the description on Amazon.com: “Cassia has always trusted the Society to make the right choices for her: what to read, what to watch, what to believe. So when Xander’s face appears on-screen at her Matching ceremony, Cassia knows he is her ideal mate . . . until she sees Ky Markham’s face flash for an instant before the screen fades to black.”  A bit of romance mixed in with a bit of dystopia.  Kids have really been enjoying this one, and the sequel Crossed is in high demand.

Trash by Andy Mulligan

From the description on Amazon.com: “In an unnamed Third World country, in the not-so-distant future, three ‘dumpsite boys’ make a living picking through the mountains of garbage on the outskirts of a large city. One unlucky-lucky day, Raphael finds something very special and very mysterious. So mysterious that he decides to keep it, even when the city police offer a handsome reward for its return. That decision brings with it terrifying consequences, and soon the dumpsite boys must use all of their cunning and courage to stay ahead of their pursuers. It’s up to Raphael, Gardo, and Rat—boys who have no education, no parents, no homes, and no money—to solve the mystery and right a terrible wrong.”

Ship Breaker by Paolo Bacigalupi

Fast-paced and dark, this dystopic novel set in the Gulf Coast follows the struggle of a teenage boy and his friends as they try to balance basic survival, protection of an important treasure that might change his life dramatically, and the boy’s precarious relationship with his drug-addicted, abusive father.  This was a Printz Award winner and National Book Award finalist, for good reason.  The writing is tight and the suspense relentless.

And a few more . . .

Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card

The Uglies Series by Scott Westerfeld

The Gone Series by Michael Grant

If you can think of others, please comment and add your suggestions!

Note:  My recommendations in this post are probably most appropriate for 7th and 8th graders (and older teens), because this genre of book tends to be dark and violent.  I have not read all of these titles.  Many of them get on my radar from reviews, but most of these have been recommended and enjoyed by some of our older middle school students.  For parents who are concerned about appropriateness for their child, I highly recommend the website commonsensemedia.org for detailed information about specific titles, including language, violence, drinking/drugs, educational value, presence of positive role models and points/questions for family discussion.

(Apologies for the wacky formatting of this post.  I can’t get the thumbnails and text to line up the way I want!)

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The Only Ones by Aaron Starmer

Reading The Only Ones felt a bit like dreaming.  I flew through this book in just a few days, and always had a hard time putting it down, and when I finished, it felt like I had dreamt the whole thing.  Starmer writes beautifully and compellingly, and I guess he sort of pulled me into this alternate world so well, I had to wake up from it when I was finished.  I’m still not sure I have entirely woken up yet!

The Only Ones is about a boy, Martin Maple, who grows up on a small island with his father.  Tourists come and go every summer, but Martin and his father only interact with each other, focusing much of their energy on building and rebuilding a mysterious machine.  Martin can take apart and rebuild the machine, as his father has taught him, but he doesn’t know what the machine is for, what it can do.  There is a missing piece, but he doesn’t know what it is.

Then one day his father leaves the island, promising to return before Martin’s 11th birthday.  The birthday comes and goes, and Martin’s father doesn’t return.  Tourist season comes and goes, and the tourists don’t come to the island.  Martin finally decides he must leave the island to see what has happened, and discovers that, with the exception of a group of about 50 kids, all of the people in the world have disappeared without a trace.  The kids who remain are all drawn mysteriously to a town they name Xibalba, where they create a society in which each child’s special talent or interest helps them all survive.  But can they figure out a way to get their families back?  Can they figure out what happened to make everyone disappear?

Part science fiction, part mystery, this well-crafted story was moving in ways I didn’t see coming.  This is one that will stick with me for a long time.

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