pop-fiction, the Hunger Games, and how trashy teen-lit kills reading…

The Hunger Games is the next big thing apparently. I first learned of the books last year when a friend of mine was raving about how much she and her daughter enjoyed the series. Color me cautious, I didn’t share her enthusiasm then and still remain skeptical that it’s just another series looking to profit off the teen-lit phenomenon.

I mean clearly the Twilight series proved intellectually beneficial to young readers…

When it comes to children’s and young adult literature I think it’s important they have a solid grasp on what constitutes good writing and storytelling before being exposed to pop-fiction. Pop-fiction is fun, yes, but you don’t have dessert before dinner. It ruins the appetite.

The Boy shares my opinion. When he was asked why he hadn’t read the Hunger Games yet when clearly the books are so “epically [sic] awesome” he simply and honestly replied, “Well, I suppose if I never read really good literature than I might enjoy them too.”

This isn’t to directly criticize the HG series since I haven’t read them, instead my judgement is for the teen-lit craze in general. Reading is good but should we be so quick to recommend any book just for the sake of reading? If we want children to truly be passionate about literature we need to help them discern what is worthwhile of reading. When they read truly phenomenal writing they want more. When they read the latest fad in pop-lit without having read much of anything else they quickly get bored with shallow storytelling.

This is not to say that he and I don’t simply adore Harry Potter. Those books examined the virtue of self sacrifice and good v. evil with heavy spiritual influences. The HP series had a lot of Catholic elements interwoven in the plot, as discussed in depth by Fr. Roderick. My son has also recently read the Percy Jackson series and while this was his least favorite series he did enjoy it, but certainly not as much as HP or Narnia. I think the words he used to describe Percy Jackson were “mildly amusing”.

I suppose my main question for those having read the Hunger Games series, what is the intellectual and spiritual benefit from them? I’ve read this review which mentions how dark and gory the killing is but does not mention if elements of redemption are addressed or how the characters deal with the guilt of being forced to kill. Do any of the characters refuse to kill their opponent because they believe killing is a moral wrong? You get the idea. Is it reading just for the sake of reading that happens to be entertaining and action packed, or is it legitimately something more profound and worthwhile?

In the meantime, I am encouraging The Boy to write book reviews on his own blog, starting with the Mysterious Benedict Society and The Young Chesterton Chronicles. Later he will be adding a recommended reading list that will include all the good stuff [dinner] followed by the fun stuff [dessert].

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  • Kimberly_whelan

    The books are written for teens and I actually haven’t allowed my 6th grade son to read them even though most in his class have.  I did read them to find out if he should read them.  Although dark and somewhat depressing at times, I did enjoy escaping in to the story. 

    I think they are way to dark and I want him to be older so he can discern the story correctly.  The books do address your concerns, but it is a Post Apocalyptic world and there is no God nor religion.   If I have to choose which is “better,” I would say that Hunger Games series is superior to the Twilight series.

    As an aside I have heard some local (northern VA) high schools had them as summer reading for government and social studies classes.

    I look forward to your son’s reviews!

  • I agree with you in most of this…I am a voracious reader and even in my teens read whatever I could find. we didn’t have a lot of money. I took what I could get. Many people, like my husband, for example, never found reading fun and consequently doesn’t read what he needs to. When he got his MBA, I read his books and put them on casettes for him; he listened on his commute. While that has made me a better businessman, ;o) it would be beneficial for him to be able to read. So, for that reason, I have always made my kids read. While there is so much available now, I do watch what they can read. Harry was a favorite. My daughter got sucked in by Twilight and now reads a lot. She is 17 and reading stuff that I wouldn’t have chosen for her. I believe in time it will still benefit her. The Hunger Games were very good until the very disappointing ending. The first two books were excellent. You are made aware of the distinction between Catniss and the people who were competing for the fame or because they were made to…and even further, how only some of them were percieved as “bad”…if you have no chance to make it legitimately, and then you had a chance in the games and competed because it could benefit your family, how that was better than just killing for glory and because it was fun. Excellent article!

  • Mamamayerle

    Ok, I’ll bite. I’ve read The Hunger Games, and while not literary masterpieces, the novels do explore deeper themes–political freedom, self sacrifice, guilt. One of the more intriguing themes deals with how far should one go to further one’s goal? Can you use people for your own ends if it is for your own survival or for the benefit and survival of many?

    My two oldest teens read the first book, and we actually discussed our thoughts and feelings about the book, as well as discussed what we liked and what we disliked about the outcome.

    The two sequels are significantly more violent and gory, and I was disappointed in that regard, but on the whole this is the first and only “teen” series I’ve ever enjoyed or thought was worth reading.

  • Anonymous

    I really don’t see how this is bad. Anything getting kids to read is good. Stuff like this has been happening for YEARS. Anyone around during the Babysitters club craze? Most kids aren’t going to just read. They need to find something good/interesting to read. And if joe blow down the street is all i read this awesome book you should to it might be the 1 step my son/daughter needs to read.

  • Anonymous

    I haven’t read The Hunger Games, so I can’t comment directly on them, but I can comment on reading books that aren’t good literature. I’ve always been a voracious reader, ever since age 4 when I taught myself to read, and I think my mom did a pretty good job of getting me to read across a spectrum: when we went to the library, I was allowed to check out as many “fluffy” books as I wanted (silly novels without much depth), BUT I also had to get books on history, science, etc. And my parents didn’t buy the fluffy novels; they only bought good, classic literature. So while I read the Babysitters’ Club and the Saddle Club novels, I was also reading Anne of Green Gables and Little Women, just to name a few. 

    I think of popular novels as dessert–they’re great, but you can’t read them all the time or you’ll get sick. But, if you combine them with good works of literature and non-fiction, they’re just fine (which is how I justified tearing through the Game of Thrones books while preparing for my Lit MA comprehensive exam–when I needed a break from the serious, I turned to the frivolous for a while). 

  • This isn’t to directly criticize the HG series since I haven’t read them, instead my judgement is for the teen-lit craze in general. Reading is good but should we be so quick to recommend any book just for the sake of reading?

    I don’t think so.  What kids read matters very much.  St. John Bosco said there are two great threats to salvation.  One is bad company.  The other is bad books.

  • Karen

    I grew up in a house where no books were banned.  I literally read everything from Pearl S Buck to V.C Andrews, with Gone With the Wind thrown in there for good measure.   I wish I could get back all the hours I wasted on VC Andrews.  I mean that sincerely.   

    My son loves the Mysterious Benedict Society books; he says they make him think.  There’s a new one coming out in March or April, i believe, about the childhood of Nicholas Benedict! 

  • Twobaglife

    The big craze for teen readers is dystopian fiction. The Hunger Games has been big for awhile, but dystopian societies touch a need in kids. I’ve heard it said that they are often a paralell to high school, where life is unfair and people are cruel, although I’m not sure about that.

    I’ve read the trilogy itself. Essentially it’s a girl friendly, sanitized version of the book “Battle Royale,” where teens are pawns of a corrupt government using them to fight each other for bloodsport. Eventually the teens rebel. Of course, you have your multiple cute love interests, your girl who is the center of everything. A warrior at one moment, but vulnerable at the other. Katniss is a much less annoying Bella while still possessing what made Bella so attractive: the attention of men and all eyes on her. And she has a righteous cause. Your boy wouldn’t like it because it’s not for him: the majority of YA readers are teen girls, to an amazing degree.

    It’s a decent book. It’s not earth shaking, but it fills a need. These days though, you are not going to get kids reading by shoving in front of them only the best literature. They need to read what they like first, no matter how bad. Then they’ll branch out once reading for pleasure becomes a habit.

  • Rebecca Cusey at Tinsel

    I’d put the Hunger games more in the Harry Potter category, not the Twilight category. Big themes. Moral questions. Big consequences. And well written.

    I have issues with the conclusions, but there is no doubt the author is exploring the morality of violence and the effect of fame culture on us.

    Thanks for linking to my piece on it. I have a new review up that goes into all the moral questions more.

    • I can’t wait to read the newest review.  I’m not totally opposed to the series just not so quick to give a kid the green light to read it w/out careful examination. Though your review certainly help expalin the series more in depth.    

  • Anonymous

    What impressed me most about the series is that the characters are permanently damaged by the war they wage and the killing they do.  Usually, the people the hero has to gun down are faceless mooks, but these protagonists make costly decisions.  By the third book Katniss is deeply damaged by the things she’s had to do.  That she did them by necessity doesn’t make her unwounded.  Getting better takes a wrenching effort on her part.

    And some of the good characters who are bent and broken by the war are never redeemed.  They don’t recognize the damage they’ve done to themselves as damage and that ends up being the most tragic part.

    •  “By the third book Katniss is deeply damaged by the things she’s had to do.  That she did them by necessity doesn’t make her unwounded.  ”
      Hmm. Maybe I will give them a read. They look like quick reads and from your description it would be interesting to draw a parallel between this damage you mention and abortion. Yeah, I’m a pain in the ass like that. 

      • Anonymous

        Oh man, if you’re interested in those themes I hope you’re planning to watch Battlestar Galactica.

        • Karen

          Battlestar galactica (the new one) is incredibly awesome.  Nothing is gratuitous, everything has a meaning.  We are currently re-watching the series on DVD for the third time.

  • I honestly, somewhere along the line,  came to the conclusion that The
    Hunger Games was about eating disorders.  It’s probably time for me to
    stop reading so much non-fiction and pay attention to some other stuff.

    (re:  V.C. Andrews – those books + some Stephen King were a great
    distraction for me the horribly hot summer when I was expecting baby #2
    and spent a lot of time slumped on the couch with severe nausea,
    insomnia etc.  Maybe that’s where her curly hair came from!)

    • “I honestly, somewhere along the line,  came to the conclusion that The Hunger Games was about eating disorders.” 
      I lol’d. 

  • JoAnna Wahlund

    I recommend this, by Fr. John Hollowell: God in the Hunger Games

    The trilogy as a whole, I think, offers some excellent food for thought regarding the purpose of government, the nature of freedom, and the morality of war.

    I thought the third book in particular was an excellent example of why the Just War doctrine is so important.

  • As a writer for a Harry-Potter-as-literature site, I’m of two minds about this. First, I hated the entire Hunger Games series; it was extraordinarily violent, not well developed in worldbuilding terms, and I have a personal vendetta against love triangles. At least, in fiction. Also, the read was so painful that after finishing Mockingjay I put my face in a bathroom towel and sobbed myself silly.

    On the other hand, the first book in particular had some real depth as far as theme and underlying meaning. (By Mockingjay, there was nothing underlying about the meaning. Did you know war is evil? It’s evil. Collins will be happy to prove that in careful detail.) I have a couple of literary friends who have written extensively on the books, so if you are interested further, here’s Travis Prinzi on Panem’s politics and power and imagination in the story.

    There’s also the Hogwarts Professors, who cover everything from random cultural references to the story to the structural literary alchemy to John Granger’s own suspicion that Suzanne Collins is a Catholic.

    Good luck with your decisions whether or not to read!

    • Mitchell Palmquist

       I’ve seen stuff claiming she is in fact a Catholic. It would make a whole lotta sense if she was. The books have some definite Catholic themes, without being overtly or intentionally Catholic.

    • Barb Nicolosi

      I think it is curious that there are Harry Potter devotees who are doing a knee-jerk defensive reaction against Hunger Games.  Wonder if there were Tolstoy groupees who really set themselves against that new sham phenom Dostoevsky.  Beware of cultish cliquishness.  Why can’t we just say that neither series is perfect or dastardly and that each has laudable qualities and regrettable qualities?

      • Perhaps I should clarify that my negative reaction was personal (and owing primarily to having a hard time dealing with the child-on-child violence portrayed… I’ve never been able to make myself read Golding for just that reason), and that as a fan and student of the Potter books, I saw some real value in The Hunger Games. The articles by Travis and John point out some of the reasons the story is worth reading and studying.

        You’re absolutely right that knee-jerk  reactions happen far too much among devotees of certain works; forgive me if I came off as another such. Tolkien fans diss Potter; Potter fans diss Twilight and sometimes The Hunger Games. We cannot write these books off so easily. I believe that if a story is popular, it’s usually filling–or at least soothing–some spiritual or emotional need.

  • I’m of the mind that if it’s immediately popular, whether for adults or children, a closer look is needed.  I was “forced” to read all the McGuffey Readers when I was growing up.  Hated that I had to take time and look words up, but I realize now what a wonderful collection they are.  

    • WGA writer

      Some things are popular because they are very good.  Like soap.  Or the wheel.

  • Jmromanski

    I think what Barbara Nicolosi says in the recent Sex, Style, and Substance is very applicable to these situations: 
    Everywhere I go, Catholics tell me that they never go to the movies or watch TV. Invariably, someone waves his hand dismissively and says,”It’s all garbage”…But the truth is, it isn’t all garbage. Some of what you find on television on a given night is very, very good…This is not to say that there isn’t a lot of very harmful stuff out there on television and on the Internet and in the movies…Serious Christians need to experience the cultural arena not as fans but as apostles. We should be brooding over today’s art and stories as signs of the times, not simply absorbing them like sponges. We have to fortify ourselves spiritually, philosophically, and ethically, so that we can enter into the cultural climate the way a doctor enters a hospital. If we shun the hospital because there is some sickness there, it means that some of the souls entrusted to us will die. But here’s the real rub: if we avoid the hospital, we also die, because we aren’t just doctors to the times, we are also patients…Just as much as our pagan neighbors, we need stories to lead us to wonder, hope, and compunction…It has to be regarded as a modern heresy that so many contemporary Catholics have bought into a reactionary posture  of seeing themselves as apart from the culture (163-165).

  • Anna

    I read them and liked them – and I tend to be a bit of a book snob.  In addition to being a good story, they are grammatical and follow the basic rules of good storytelling.  They are very violent, though not always gory.  I don’t know that I’d let a pre-teen read them (it would really depend on the teen – I don’t think I could have handled them at 13), but that’s your call with your knowledge of your child. 
    And they do develop moral themes: Katniss doesn’t kill unless someone is specifically trying to kill her; evil damages those who choose it – even when it promises rewards; we have an obligation to resist evil; hope can exist even in horrible circumstances (amazing to me that there are large and loving families such as Rue’s). 
    I don’t plan to see the movies.  I often don’t like movie adaptions anyway, and since HG is strongly against the reality shows/gladiator games that are the basis of the story, it would be odd to me to be in the position of the people in the Capital, watching the violence for entertainment. 

  • Guest

    I have two adult female in-laws that absolutely love ‘Twilight’ and are raving about ‘Hunger Games’ now. I haven’t read either book. I’m sure they’re great… for teens. I prefer to stick to fantasy literature written for grown ups, ie, ‘A Game of Thrones.’

  • Han Ng

    I haven’t read Hunger Games either, but from the comments I am reading here, the series seems to be derivative of Takami’s 1999 novel Battle Royale.

  • I have only read a few snippets of the HG series.  I am actually waiting for the first book to come in at the library.  I read Fr. John Hollowell’s review and that is what prompted me to order the book.  My 15 year old and nearly 12 year old have both read the first book.  Just about anything will be better than the Twilight series.  Twilight was complete garbage.  Poorly written with inconsistencies and improper word usage and a stalker as a main “love interest” character make for stomach turning drivel IMO.

  • Julie Klare

    Can’t wait to read The Boy’s reviews. He has inspired a certain 9-yo in my house to periodically beg for blogging rights of her own. Perhaps instead she could guest post a review of Robinson Crusoe or the Swiss Family Robinson. It’s all about island living around here, lately.

  • Belle

    If you’re looking for a Catholic review on the Hunger Games, I suggest you read the review below:

  • Nancy Piccione

    I think this is a good analysis, even if you haven’t read The Hunger Games.  It is thought-provoking and worth a read, but not   I really like the “you are what you eat” analogy to media consumption.  I teach a class called “You are What you Read” to middle-graders to promote media literacy.  That’s so much more important than what you read.

    I just came across Clare Cannon’s excellent video review, exploring the themes of Hunger Games and why she won’t be seeing the movie: http://www.mercatornet.com/bookreviews/view/10493

    Treasure Chest for Tweens, a Catholic reviewer, had this interesting Catholic analysis of HG: http://booksnblather.blogspot.com/search?q=the+hunger+games

    By the way, your son’s blog is hilarious, just like yours, and I look forward to his reviews of good books.  I’ve just ordered the Chesterton book for Easter for our kids.

  • Jenne

    Love your son’s blog!  So funny – made teacher mad post made me LMAO – I hurt – so good 🙂 And taught me that literate kids need parents.  Good example to get me to read more good books to my own kids.  

  • Brian A. Cook

    In fairness, during my phase when I read classic novels, I read Dracula and did find it to be very slow and wordy up until well after the middle.  In the case of Nathaniel Hawthorne’s House of Seven Gables, it was even wordier all the way through. 

    When I started hearing about the Hunger Games and started learning about its premise, I was actually reminded of this.


  • Loversnirvana17

    Bram Stoker’s Dracula is far more better than Twlight. I’m a teenager and to find out that other teens think that Dracula is boring. Seriously put down your little romance fantasies and go back to the dark world. Vampries DO NOT sparkle.