Category Archives: suspense

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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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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A Monster Calls by Patrick Ness

I’m not going to be able to write intelligently about this book, so maybe I shouldn’t even try.  I just finished it, and I just want to go sob somewhere or something.

This is a beautiful, heartbreaking, complex book.  Even the story behind the book is beautiful, heartbreaking, and complex: Siobhan Dowd had an idea, but passed away from cancer before she could write the story.  Patrick Ness was asked to write the book, and as he says in the Author’s Note, he knew he couldn’t write the story Dowd would have written.  He decided to try to write a story she would approve of.  I believe he succeeded.

Conor O’Malley’s mother is very sick, possibly dying.  One night at 12:07, the yew tree from a nearby graveyard forms itself into a giant, frightening monster and comes crashing into his room.  Thus begins a series of visitations from the monster, who, like everything and every character in this novel, is no simple creature.  Is he evil?  Is he kind?  Is he destructive?  Is he gentle?  Yes to all of these, and more.  He yells, he rages, he destroys, and he tells stories in which the bad guys seem to win.  But he also seems to be there to help Conor sort out his problems–with his mother’s illness, his father’s absence, his grandmother’s coldness, his classmates’ bullying.

This little book, with its dark illustrations (beautifully wrought by Jim Kay) and its suspenseful scenes and its quirky but compelling premise, grabbed me from the very beginning and did not let go.  The beauty of this novel for me is how accurately it portrays this messy business of being human.  We have thoughts we wish we didn’t have, do things we wish we hadn’t done, hurt and are hurt by the people we love and who love us.  Nothing is ever tied up quite as neatly as many novels for children would have us believe or hope.  How wonderful of Ness to take all of that complexity and deliver it in a tight, suspenseful novel that I expect kids and adults alike will be moved by.

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Guest review: Bigger Than A Breadbox by Laurel Snyder

I’d like to sometimes change things up a bit on this blog and include reviews written by actual middle schoolers.  Here is the first of what I hope will be many guest reviews!

Guest Review by Claire H., 5th grader.

I loved Bigger Than A Breadbox by Laurel Snyder. It is one of my favorite books of all-time. The book is about a girl named Rebecca, whose mother decides to leave her father, taking Rebecca and her little brother, Lew, with her to stay at their Gran’s house. On her first day there, Rebecca goes into the attic to get away from her mother and while she is there, finds a collection of old breadboxes. There is one in particular that sticks out to her because it is clean, unlike the others. She soon realizes that the breadbox is magical, whatever she wishes for will appear inside the breadbox, as long as it can fit inside. Rebecca struggles to figure out the true meaning of life and the breadbox in this novel.

I liked this book because it is something that, because I am a kid, is nice to see from a kid’s perspective. I really like books about girls like Rebecca, who have a hard time, and this book really fit into that category. It is also really suspenseful, which I like in a book. I finished the book in only two days, I couldn’t stop reading. It is a real page-turner.

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