If you have young readers in your house, there is a good chance you’ve already seen Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games trilogy. These books are about a 16-year-old girl’s struggle to survive and protect her loved one’s against a savage totalitarian state. The prose is easily accessible to youth, though I wouldn’t encourage most pre-teens to read it because it is quite brutal, and the themes are more mature than, for instance, what one finds in Harry Potter.
My wife and I like to keep up on what our kids (and other kids) are reading, so I read more youth fiction than I would otherwise. This trilogy is surprisingly gloomy for youth fiction, but my kids can’t put it down. The storytelling is excellent and the prose engaging. I was hooked within a few pages. The initial surprise is that the protagonist, Katniss Everdeen, is a girl, since the hunting story the book opens with suggests a boy. And the books are one of those rare feats that are appealing to boys and girls. Katniss is a lovely, compelling mix of action hero, tomboy and traditional femininity. Girls love her and boys are in love with her, though they wouldn’t admit it (the young actress who gets to play her in the planned movie series will become the next Kristen Stewart, who wouldn’t be a bad choice if she were younger). Over the course of the series, Katniss is very emotionally volatile and, frankly, somewhat exhausting for the reader. But, then, what teenage girl isn’t emotionally exhausting?
Anyway, I’m bringing this up on Pileus because of the trilogy’s strong political themes. The books are depressing in the way that 1984 is depressing. Collins does an excellent job in portraying the horrors of a totalitarian state: the complete control of information flows, the arbitrary brutality, the abject poverty of people exploited for the benefit of a small elite, and, most of all, the sense of utter hopelessness felt by ordinary people living under such a regime.
My family usually likes to watch the Olympics on TV. But in 2008 I encouraged a boycott. I couldn’t in good conscience watch an Olympic games hosted by the police state of China. True, the Olympics are about nations putting aside their political differences and coming together in friendly competition. But they are also about the celebration of the human spirit. Given the Chinese regime’s success at squashing the human spirit, I couldn’t stomach any Olympic coverage from Beijing.
I bring this up because the Hunger Games gives parents a good platform to talk with kids about totalitarianism and state oppression more generally. I could say to my kids, “This is why we boycotted the Olympics, because the Chinese government is like the government in Hunger Games” (which, without giving away too much, centers on the government pitting children against each other in a battle-to-the-death struggle used to entertain the Capitol elite).
China isn’t, of course, totalitarian to the extent the regime is in the books, but the kids are able to get what I’m saying. I pointed out to them that a Chinese democracy advocate who is in prison just won the Nobel Peace Prize, but that most people in China don’t know anything about him or about the prize because of the way China censors its media and internet (and the way that Western corporations help them do so).
For some reason, I’m thinking kids in China aren’t reading Hunger Games.