Tag Archives: YA

Book Review: The Hunger Games

In a dark vision of the near future, a terrifying reality TV show is taking place. Twelve boys and twelve girls are forced to appear in a live event called the Hunger Games. There is only one rule: kill or be killed.

When sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen steps forward to take her sister’s place in the games, she sees it as a death sentence. But Katniss has been close to death before. For her, survival is second nature.

My relationship with The Hunger Games began long before I read the book. I first heard it about it online. Everyone was talking about it. (So it seemed.) According to the interwebs it was great, amazing, awe-inspiring, fantastic, inspirational, suspenseful, thrilling and phenomenal.

Not to oversell it or anything.

Initially I brushed this off with the same ‘meh’ attitude that I brush off all apparently superfluous hype. If there’s one sure way to convince me not to read/watch something, it’s to tell me it’s the greatest thing since the cat’s pyjamas.

(And that’s why I haven’t seen Avatar, The Dark Knight or Titanic.)

But the hype didn’t go away. It just kept getting bigger. And then I read an interview with Suzanne Collins where she explained the basic premise for the novel and her inspiration (quote taken from the back of the book, because I can’t remember where I read the interview):

I was channel surfing between reality TV programming and actual war coverage when Katniss’s story came to me. One night I’m sitting there flipping around and on one channel there’s a group of young people competing for, I don’t know, money maybe? And on the next there’s a group of young people fighting an actual war. And I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way, and I thought of this story.

Wow. I thought. The idea reminds me of Series 7: The Contenders, only with teenagers. I love that movie. Maybe I should look at reading this book.

Then I put the thought out of my mind and moved on. Until my birthday.

A friend of mine took me to a bookshop and told me that he’d buy me 2 books for my birthday. Well, what a choice! I’m fairly certain he immediately regretted it. It took me almost an hour to make my choice. (In my defence: I’m a struggling artist with 2 kids and a hard-working sole-income-earning husband. Buying books is a luxury these days.)

After trawling through the “paranormal” section looking for apparently rare urban fantasy picks, I suddenly remembered The Hunger Games. I made my way to the YA section and there it was, sitting brazenly on the shelf, tempting me with its shiny cover and shelf-talker proclaiming it to be a “great read”. To top it off, the whole trilogy was marked as “Buy 2, Get 1 Free!” I could have all 3 books as my birthday present!

But…

What if I didn’t like it? What if the hype didn’t live up to my expectations? No. Much safer to buy the first book (The Hunger Games) and see if I liked it before fully committing myself.

I brought home The Hunger Games  and sat it next to my bed. Then I read the other new book. And then a couple of library books. Then some magazines. And The Hunger Games still sat there, unread. For a whole month.

See, as long as I didn’t open the cover, the book could be anything. It could be good. It could be terrible. There was no way to tell. But the moment I started reading… well, the anticipation and mystery would be gone forever.

Note: I also love unopened presents. Wrapping paper can conceal anything. That envelope could be a tacky $2 card from Grandma OR it could be a fresh $100 note. Or a gift card. Or tickets to a concert. Or  details of a weekend away. But the moment you tear the paper off, the mystery is gone. Reality rarely lives up to my imagination.

Note the Second: An unread book is a bit like Schrodinger’s Cat.

But one night it happened. I was tired. It was late. I was weak. I picked up the book. I’ll just read a few pages, I said to myself. Just to see if I like it.

I started reading. I was hooked within 3 paragraphs. The next thing I knew, I was up to page 120 and didn’t want to put the book down. Ever. I loved Katniss. I was Katniss. I couldn’t stop reading — what if something happened to her? What if I missed something? It was too exciting, too horrifying, too real. I loved it.

The fact that I had to wake up in 3 hours was the deciding factor. But I still read for another 2 pages until Katniss went to sleep. Then I closed the book quickly so I knew she was safe. Nothing could happen while she was sleeping, right?

I rearranged my schedule the next day specifically to allow myself reading time.

I finished The Hunger Games that night while hiding in the bedroom, pretending to be doing the laundry. It took less than 24 hours to read a 450 page book, in between sleeping and looking after 2 children. I laughed out loud in places, winced at Katniss’s naivety, cheered her heroism, cried inconsolably (twice), and when I finished the last page I clasped the book to my heart and announced, “This is possibly the best book I’ve ever read.”

Then I cursed myself for not buying books 2 and 3.

Now that I’ve read it, I can say with absolute certainty: The Hunger Games is great, amazing, awe-inspiring, fantastic, inspirational, suspenseful, thrilling and phenomenal.

Not to oversell it or anything.

23 Comments

Filed under Reading

Goldilocks and the Three YA Books

The first YA book was too dark and gritty.
The second YA book was too full of dancing unicorns.
The third YA book was just right.

They say that you can’t please all of the people, all of the time. And I guess the recent article in the Wall Street Journal titled Darkness Too Visible is a clear example of that. The article puts forward the idea that there is too much ‘explicit abuse, violence and depravity; in modern Young Adult fiction, and uses an example of a mother looking for an appropriate book for her 13-year-old daughter as “proof” that there are no YA books on offer that are “just right”.

There are plenty of blogs out there with thoughts (on both sides of the fence), and I won’t list them all here. Do a quick web search, and you’ll find them more than you can possibly read. It’s taken me a few days to get my head around this, and come up with my own take on the issue. This is for a couple of reasons. Firstly, I don’t usually read YA fiction, so I’ve had to do some research into the types of books actually on offer. Secondly, I’ve had to wade through the overly emotional language in the original article to get to the heart of the issue.

To address the first point. I’ve read a couple of YA novels. I’m not going to tell you which ones – it really isn’t relevant. Suffice to say, I specifically looked for books with “dark” themes, although I didn’t go for any of the books listed in the WSJ article. My reaction was… Well, my initial reaction was to agree with the WSJ that the books were really dark, and not really suitable for children.

Then I felt shocked at my own attitude, and took the time to thrust my mind 20 years into the past, into my own YA years. And Past Jo wanted to give Present Jo a good slapping. Seriously. As adults, we often forget just how tumultuous those teenage years were. In our memories, we separate our past into “child” and “adult”. Think back to when you were 15. Did you think of yourself as a child or an adult? But now that you really ARE an adult, do you consider a 15-year-old to be a child or an adult?

See what I’m saying?

There is no doubt that the YA books on offer today have the capacity to be more “dark” than the books that were targeted at teenagers 20 years ago. But just stop and think what that means. I’d like to pull a quote wholesale from the WSJ article at this point:

As it happens, 40 years ago, no one had to contend with young-adult literature because there was no such thing. There was simply literature, some of it accessible to young readers and some not.

This is one of the very few, non-emotive, non-controversial facts in the entire WSJ article. And, what amuses me, is that they have used this sentence to back up their argument that YA fiction is too dark. What they seem to be saying is: Look – all those years ago, kids were reading kids books. Then, when they were adults, they moved on to adult books.

Sound reasonable?

The point that they have missed, however, is the simple question of WHEN kids were moving on to adult books.

When I was 11 years old, I was a huge fan of Nancy Drew, The Hardy Boys, The Three Investigators, Judy Blume, and a variety of stand-alone titles that I’ve long forgotten. When I was 12 years old, I was well and truly over them all. I wanted something challenging – both in terms of reading level and content. So I moved to the adult section of the library. There, I discovered the wonderful world of Spy Thrillers. (It was the late 80s, okay?) The very first adult novel that I read had 4 explicit sex scenes, 1 non-explicit rape scene, and 2 explicit torture scenes. Towards the end of the book, the only female character (who was previously raped) was hung over the edge of a building by her neck, strangled, and then dropped 13 stories. The male character found the remains of her body splattered over his car.

Now, I was 12 years old. And I loved that book. I had no context for anything that happened, other than the written word. My parents wouldn’t even let me watch PG rated movies, because they thought that they were too violent, so I had nothing to compare the book with. Was I traumatized by reading this book? No. Did I go back for my Spy Thrillers? Hell, yes.

My point here is: no, dark YA books didn’t exist 40 years ago. Or even 20 years ago. When I worked in a bookshop 10 years ago, we still didn’t have a YA section. But that doesn’t mean that kids weren’t reading books with explicit violence and sex in them. It just means that they were reading books with explicit violence and sex that was AIMED at adults. Explain to me again how that’s better?

In saying that, I can see where the mother in the article was coming from. In another eight years, I’m not sure that I’ll be comfortable buying a book for my son if it’s full of sex, violence, and drug abuse. But I actually think that the problem is not the books themselves. The problem is that most adults have no idea what age group YA is really aimed at, and where to look for alternatives. After all, if you don’t keep up to date with the publishing or book industries (and why would most people?) then you have to rely on booksellers to educate you. And not all of them are very good.

I think that’s the real tragedy here. Yes, there are more “dark” books aimed at teenagers. But there should be plenty of people (booksellers, librarians, reading guides, etc) available to help Goldilocks find the book that’s Just Right.

As an aside, I also think that classifying  YA as “books aimed at 13 to 18 year olds” is too broad a category. While some 13 year olds might be read for those darker books (like I was), there’s a large percentage who aren’t. And most 18 year olds are so busy trying to establish their credentials as “Real” adults that you’ll never get them within 10 feet of anything labelled Young Adult. I think that the majority of YA fiction is really geared towards 14-17 year olds, with a percentage of people on either side of that age range included.

There’s a really big difference between a 13-year-old and an 18-year-old, whether you’re talking reading experience, life experience, or overall world view. Don’t believe me? What’s your first, gut reaction to the following sentence:

My 18-year-old son is dating your 13-year-old daughter.

3 Comments

Filed under Opinion, Writing