Little essays about the little things,
blazing my own trails through motherhood, writing, and the world.
March 22, 2012
Why Your Daughter Needs to Read The Hunger Games (Someday)
Since the advent of the Harry Potter craze about two decades ago, I've been cautious about adolescent lit phenomena. I couldn't get into theTwilight Sagaand I have no desire to get into the Gossip Girl series. For one, I don't dig on vampires (never did, sorry Anne Rice), and the maybe because I already work in an environment--a public high school--where I witness the dizzying highs and lows of teenage relationships every day, titles that allude to the same basic personalities we once found in The Breakfast Club just hold no interest for me (p.s., one of the novels in the G.G. series is called Don't You Forget About Me). Consider this editorial review from Publishers Weekly about Gossip Girl:
At a New York City jet-set private school populated by hard-drinking, bulimic, love-starved poor little rich kids, a clique of horrible people behave badly to one another. An omniscient narrator sees inside the shallow hearts of popular Blair Waldorf, her stoned hottie of a boyfriend, Nate, and her former best friend Serena van der Woodsen, just expelled from boarding school and "gifted with the kind of coolness that you can't acquire by buying the right handbag or the right pair of jeans. She was the girl every boy wants and every girl wants to be." Everyone wears a lot of designer clothes and drinks a lot of expensive booze. Serena flirts with Nate and can't understand why Blair is upset with her; Blair throws a big party and doesn't invite Serena; Serena meets a cute but unpopular guy; and a few less socially blessed characters wonder about the lives of those who "have everything anyone could possibly wish for and who take it all completely for granted."
When my students read for pleasure--let me specify--when my 9th and 10th grade students, who happen to be girls, read for pleasure, they pick up this kind of stuff, mostly. (Today, I noticed one of my students reading a book called Bling Addiction. Ironically, I happen to teach one of two high schools in a district that many consider to be one the most elite public high schools in the area. Our school has been nationally ranked for several years in U.S. News and World Report, it isn't important here why. But the common perception of people outside of our district is that our students all drive BMWs and Porches and flaunt their wealth like they might their entitlement. While it is true that our school's is an affluent population, we, like the high school in the Breakfast Club, also have a population of students who live in trailers, apartments, and have little access to conveniences like washing machines. So I can understand why a Gossip Girl or a Massie, Dylan, or Alicia (from the Clique Summer Collection) might appeal to a demographic of girls who deal with the trials of trying to "fit in" and discover their own strengths simultaneously among the intelligent, talented, wealthy, mean, academic, goofy, superficial, genuine, etc. etc. kinds of kids we find walking the halls, forever.
I don't know if this kind of literature reinforces stereotypes of girls or breaks them. But all I have to read are titles like It's Not Easy Being Mean and Massie Gets Be-You-Tiful (though this one has promise) to know that the worlds in these novels may be based on the same old high-school culture we can only laugh at once we've graduated.
And then along comes The Hunger Games, and with this series, the most kick-ass girl since...well, there's a rich collection to choose from. I asked my colleagues and some friends (in a recent Facebook poll) to name their favorite, strongest female characters in literature. Here's a working list (and part of your kid's future, personal library). Some classical, some contemporary, some fictitious characters, some based on girls and women who live(d) and survive(d). The feedback/dialogue was ample, and so this list just scratches the surface:
Jane (Jane Eyre)
Cathy (Wuthering Heights)
Jo (and her sisters! and her mother!) (Little Women)
Anne (Anne of Green Gables)
Laura Ingalls Wilder (Little House on the Prarie Series)
Trixie Belden (of the Trixie Belden mystery novels)
Claudia (The Mixed Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiller)
Harriet (Harriet the Spy)
Tish Sterling (Keeping Days)
Esperanza (The House on Mango Street)
Elizabeth Bennet (Pride and Prejudice)
Hester Prynne (The Scarlet Letter)
Scarlett O'Hara (Gone With the Wind)
Winnie Foster (Tuck Everlasting)
Leslie (Bridge to Terabithia)
Lyra (The Golden Compass)
Martha Quest (Children of Violence series)
There are so many more... but it's late (You understand. Ask me for a more complete list.)
Katniss, the protagonist of Suzanne Collins's Hunger Games, warrants some pop love. Unlike the primary characters in so many popular books aimed at teens (not the ones above, mind you, but the Bling Addiction sort), Katniss is not concerned with her clothing, boyfriends, girl friends, or social status, because she's merely trying to survive as she is the primary caretaker of her family. She's savvy, uses both her instincts and reason as her guides, and has a conscience that bespeaks her depth. Like all good characters, she's complex, questions herself, makes mistakes, and moves on. She's frustratingly level-headed, and we get excited when she allows herself to explore her romantic feelings toward Peeta as she hasn't really discovered this part of herself before.
But what really gets me revved about this book is its subtle allusions to myth, legend, even Shakespeare, that teens are soaking in without even knowing it. Katniss is the first character (in my mind, anyway), since the iconic Harry Potter and Luke Skywalker, to represent the archetypal hero: she has no parents, reluctantly goes on a journey, she must tap her instincts and rely on her innate gift (in this case, she's a one-shot with a bow and arrow) to overthrow/conquer/survive, and she emerges, victorious, from her trial as a hero of the people. She's no wilting flower, but she has weak moments; she's attractive and super-smart, but humble; she's neither wealthy nor inaccessibly complex--she's one of us; she's got a survivor's instinct--a cat-ness, if you please!-- that makes us feel empowered as we read. And what is she surviving? A "game" that pits kids against one another to the death. It's a nauseating, fictional scenario, enough to engage our psyche to understand that Katniss's ordeal is of the utmost gravity.
Today, one of my sophomores dressed up as Katniss in honor of the premiere of The Hunger Games tonight at midnight. One student offered to babysit my kids this weekend so that Heath and I could go see it. There's a movie poster in my classroom, and my students have been salivating over some the magazines (impulse purchases I haven't regretted yet) that feature Jennifer Lawrence (who portrays Katniss) on both covers. I couldn't be happier that this book is Catching Fire. Our kids'--but mostly, our girls'--perceptions and imaginings about their own strength, intuition, and sense of self will be edified.
I'd love to know about who your favorite characters are in literature, especially the books of your childhood... post a comment, and thanks for reading!