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YA Fiction: The Hunger Games?

I've just finished reading the first book in Suzanne Collins' trilogy, The Hunger Games. It was also the first YA novel I've ever read, even in my teens, which was a long, long time ago indeed, when a TV set in your living room passed for high-tech, and stereo wasn't even around yet; we had "hifi" instead, though the recording fidelity was anything but.

So, didn't I read when I was younger? Yes, voraciously. But we didn't call children's fiction YA then. And what we did read was aimed as much at the adult population as at kids. There were exceptions like The Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew mystery series, in neither of which did I ever open a page. Mainly I read Mark Twain classics, like Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer, Robert Louis Stevenson's works, like Kidnapped and Treasure Island, and every Charles Dickens book in our town library.



That was what I read in grade school. By the time I got to high school, there were no novels that could conceivably be thought of as YA. The closest I can come up with is J. R. R. Tolkien's Hobbit and Lord of the Rings. Or maybe Salinger's Catcher in the Rye, or Golding's Lord of the Flies, but those were intended for adult audiences from the get-go.

By the time I left high school, I was deep into the modern and post-modern classics, reading from the likes of Hardy, Hesse, Camus, Kafka, Dostoevsky -- okay, I know it's getting dark here so I'll add -- Fitzgerald, Steinbeck, and Hemingway, then wading right into the women novelists, Cather, Austen and the Bronte sisters. And then there was Shakespeare, some assigned but more for my own pleasure.



As I read The Hunger Games, I began to draw distinctions between it and what I read when my own mind and body were "YA". Collins has certainly written a fast-paced, conflict-ridden, accessible narrative, and the imagined post-apocalyptic world she creates comes alive for the reader. These aspects alone make the novel well worth the reading. And since I'm a lover of a good tale, I definitely plan to read the other two novels in her trilogy. In other words, I've been sucked in. Always a good thing.

When I think more, though, I worry about the simplicity of both Collins' language and themes, and I wonder if what our kids read today is just not as rich as what we read in the 50s and 60s. Compare Collins' Hunger Games with Golding's Lord of the Flies and you might agree.



And I also worry about the commodification of "youth" literature. J. K. Rowling's Harry Potter series has sold somewhere in the neighborhood of 500 million copies, a staggering number. Stephanie Meyers Twilight series has sold over 100 million. The Hunger Games trilogy trails by a long way at around 25 million, but the first movie isn't out yet. Just wait.

Now, I've read my share of "page turners", and my own writing could hardly be classified as literary. And I accept the argument that if it takes wizards, dragons, vampires, or end-of-the-world scenarios to get kids to read, then something is better than nothing. But what about serious literature? How can we bridge from those attention-grabbing books to the vast wealth gathering dust on library shelves?

Last night I shared a meal with a 29-year-old high school English teacher I know, and put my questions to him. He admitted that his students read "crap" (his words, not mine), and many seem bored with the literature he assigns. Not enough action. Then he and I discussed what we each had read for fun when we were their age, and the lists were quite similar and quite literary.

But when I broadened my search out to non-English majors in my family and friends, the fun books list slowly dropped in caliber until reaching a woman friend who admitted to having read nothing better than Modern Romance magazines. "I was concentrating on boys, not books," she told me. Fair enough, I thought, knowing she must have had way more fun than I ever did back then.

The capper came from my sister, who reads broadly now. She rattled off the titles she had been assigned for class, then added, "My girlfriends and I used to go over to one of their houses to sit on the bed and take turns reading out loud from The Happy Hooker."

Maybe I'm worrying for nothing. 

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