07 April 2012

Letting my 11 year old read The Hunger Games

Long-time readers of this blog, and people who know me well, know that there's no "letting" involved when it comes to reading. My philosophy when it comes to children and books is, "let them read what they want." Experience has taught me that children can be trusted to put down a book when it is too advanced or difficult or upsetting for them. In fact, experience has taught me that most "problems" with childrens books are more about adult hang-ups (my own included) than about an issue for the child. When The Hunger Games was originally published, I put it in the YA department, which in this library is grades 9-12. I would occasionally get middle school readers who would ask for it. Now, thanks to the success of the film, I have 8 and 9 year olds looking for the book. I've also had parents seeking it out for their children, explaining (as if any explanation were needed) that their child could handle it. Hey--we don't judge in this library! Although the parent that asked me for "that hungry book" for their fifth grader did leave me wondering if she was aware of the book's premise. When a chaperon on a pre-school visit pulled me aside earlier this week and asked how I felt about the book, and was it safe for her 11 year old boy, it was clear to me that I will be talking Hunger Games for most of the spring.

I, too, have an 11 year old at home; a daughter I used to think was a reluctant reader, until it finally dawned on me that she just reads differently than I do (more on that later.) She has been reading Forge by Laurie Halse Anderson for her social studies unit on the American Revolution and hating it every step of the way. Her objection--too graphic. She told me (repeatedly) about a scene where a man is shot dead, and then proceeded to describe how the blood looked on the ground. She didn't like it. It upset her. She even told me she didn't think "little kids" (she is in fifth grade, so she is selectively little when the occasion suits!) should be forced to read the book, even for school (a point she later made to her teachers in a written response she was required to write about the book.)

And then The Hunger Games trailers started to appear. And she asked me if she could see the movie. I am not nearly as permissive about movies as I am about books. I told her no. My daughter, being clever, immediately attacked my weak spot. "What if I read the book?"

I'd still read it!
With the Forge experience still fresh in my mind I pointed out that The Hunger Games is more graphic and contextually far more disturbing. It was a point taken. She had not liked reading Forge. She was a little worried about reading The Hunger Games and being scared. But she really wanted to see the movie--a PG-13 movie about kids fighting to the death, which she knew would be an automatic 'no' unless there were some pretty exceptional circumstances. For my part, I wanted my daughter to love a book that I love--an intelligent, magnificent piece of dystopian fiction with a strong heroine and a compelling plot which reveals more and more with each reading. But I didn't want her to get nightmares, or be so deterred if she wasn't ready for it that she then never picked it up again (I suspect this was her experience with Harry Potter.) So we tried to make the book as safe as possible for her. I started reading it to her, a chapter a night, so that she could ask all the questions she wanted (so long as they weren't spoilers!) and not confront the harsher scenes on her own. Then, when we were done, if she still wanted to see the film, I would take her.

That arrangement lasted about a week, at which point she ripped the book from my hands and proceeded to finish it herself. She loved it. She marched down stairs when she finished it and decreed it "the best book ever!" No Forge ill-effects whatsoever.

And this is where I get to the part where I contemplate the different types of readers we are, my daughter and I. I read like my life depends on it. I'm not joking when I say I worry about the books I'm not reading, the great books which will slip through my fingers simply because I don't have the time to read them all. When I have spare time on my hands, my first thought is to read. Every other form of entertainment is balanced against whether or not I want to take the time away from a book. This is possibly unhealthy, I admit it. But it's indicative about how I feel about books.

My daughter likes to read, but usually only at bedtime. Rare is the occasion when she will choose to read instead of watch TV or play on the computer or go outside or simply daydream. In fact, there are times when I feel that she will do anything to avoid picking up a book if it's not during that last hour or so before bed. But when she does read, she has a pantheon of go-to books that she constantly revisits. For her, reading is not so much about the new experience as it is about comforting familiarity. She will sample new books when she has to, usually for school, or on the recommendation of a friend. Sometimes she will even take my advice and try something I think she will like. The Hunger Games (and now Catching Fire, which she is zipping through) is that rare book where she did drop all else to read it. And I know that it will enter her inner sanctum of beloved books and be read repeatedly. I know that what she doesn't understand now at 11 will hit her differently when she is 13, 15, 18--when she is revisiting the Capital and the Districts and seeing a story she thought she knew so well take on new meaning because she is at a different point in her life than she is now. That is an incredible gift that Suzanne Collins has given to my daughter.

So yes, I "let" my daughter read The Hunger Games. My parental concerns gave way to her wishes, and in the end she proved me correct to trust my librarian instincts. Where Forge fumbled, Katniss triumphed. Score one for the freedom to read what you want.


Jeff Suter said...

Nicely said. We were discussing books and reading the other night and I opined that I do not understand why people (of all ages) don't read for pleasure. I cannot conceive of not immersing myself in another world for a time. I have always said that books have better Special Effects than any TV show or movie.

I also get annoyed with people who put down JK Rowling, they either level accusations of non-literary merit or just because her books are popular. But here was a woman who made children want to read, in fact made reading cool and fashionable. She also got parents involved in their children's reading habits. To some people this was another crime because she got adults reading children's books.

I have always said that anything that gets children reading, and enjoying and wanting to read, is ok by me.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thank you, Jeff. I am not a proponent of the idea that reading should always be an edifying experience for a child. The number of times I've seen parents tell their child to put down something they deem frivolous, yet stand their holding James Patterson under their own arm--it just drives me crazy. If parents want their children to read, the less barriers the better. And if adults want to read enjoyable books, they need to get past the "kids book" snobbery.

M said...

What a wonderful post. I love how people can be so different as readers. We have similar sorts of discussions in our home. My daughter, similarly aged to yours, has recently become a Veronica Roth (Divergent series) fan but hasn't started The Hunger Games yet.

Kara Schaff Dean said...

Thanks for stopping by, M! I like your recommendation of the "Divergent" books. I hope you and Little M continue to find great books to read and talk about together :)

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