This is a hot topic among parents of the upper elementary set - and it's gotten even hotter since the movie version of Hunger Games came out. For me the decision wasn't hard: I have read the book and when my almost-ten-year old daughter asked if she could read it, I said yes enthusiastically.
The Hunger Games is a trilogy by Suzanne Collins about a 16-year-old girl named Katniss who lives in a futuristic dystopia. Katniss volunteers to take her sister's place in an annual battle in which 24 teens fight to the death on live television. The book is rated by Scholastic as grade 5.3 and for ages 11-13.
Parents' concerns about The Hunger Games center around violence. The book has a lot of it, and it is graphic at times. Much of the plot focuses on "the games" in which children kill children. The violence itself, however, is not gratuitous and it is not celebrated. Quite the opposite. The violence is deconstructed, analyzed, and mourned by the lead characters. The book has a powerful anti-violence and anti-war message. And unlike cartoons and video games, the violence in Hunger Games has emotional and physical consequences.
To say that this book is about violence or children killing children is to miss the point entirely. The themes are loyalty, humanity, social equality, sacrifice, oppression, and the complexity of moral choices. It also carries political messages about authority, control, and rebellion. The book indicts reality television and spends a good deal of time eviscerating the genre. I have no doubt the trilogy is destined to be a classic along the lines of The Giver and Animal Farm.
My daughter is now on the third book and we talk about it most evenings, sorting out interesting vocabulary (repentance, treason, and uprising, to name a few), discussing the important themes and characters in the book, and going over the thoughtful prose she's written about it for school. Having discussions about fairness, injustice, and loyalty are much more organic through the lens of this book than just sitting around the dinner table discussing them, which kids often see as a "lecture." We know that she understands the book because of what she says and asks. She's at an age when children are grappling with issues of fairness and injustice - especially against themselves as children - an issue the book handles well. It is well-written and has a strong female protagonist, which is rare in literature for her age group.
Despite this, many parents and teachers are having angst about the book. In fact, my daughter's school came close to banning it (which would have been ironic, since the book is partly about censorship and suppressing information). Her teacher approved her reading it during independent reading time. But then a few parents complained about this: they didn't want their child to read it, but now their child was being tempted by others in the class who were. It was an interesting process to work this out in discussion with the principal and teacher. In the end, they decided to let my daughter (and two other students in the same position) read the book in school.
Usually parents have the best intentions when they tell their child they can't read a book. They want to protect their child from difficult and emotional topics they don't think the child can handle. But in general, I don't think banning is a good idea. Saying no to a child who wants to read a particular book conveys a negative message about their choices, interests, and needs. I think most kids - at least once they get to my daughter's age - are pretty good at figuring out, both intellectually and emotionally, what they can handle. If they start the book and don't understand it or it they feel uncomfortable, they'll put it down.
What's more, if we parents say no to a book, it's a good bet that our kids will find a way to read it secretly. Then we've put them in a position to lie and be secretive, and we've lost the opportunity to discuss something important to them. I'm embarrassed to admit that when I was 12, I read Helter Skelter, and more than once! Now, as a parent, I shudder at the thought, but for some reason I needed to read that book and I imagine that if my parents had forbade me, I would have read it anyway in secret. And that would have closed communication.
It's important for us as parents to think through a decision to allow or forbid our child to read a particular book. Here are some questions parents might ask themselves if their child wants to read The Hunger Games or another difficult book:
- What are my child's reasons for wanting to read the book?
- How is s/he talking about it?
- Is my child able to separate fiction from reality?
- Is my child interested in themes about society and justice (or other important themes in the book in question)?
- Does my child get particularly upset at seeing violence? Does it have long-term consequences (fear, nightmares, etc.)?
- Am I ready to read the book with my child and actively engage in regular discussions about it?
If you find you're still nervous about allowing your child to read the book, but he or she still really wants to read it and has good reasons for doing so, try having a discussion about it, as you would with any problem or conflict. Ask them to articulate why they want to read it. Honestly share your concerns about the book. See if you can work something out. You can read it first and then see if that allays your fears. Or, you can read it together. Perhaps you can let your child read a few chapters and then reassess the situation. Let your child know that you respect her or his interests and choices and that you want to work something out.
Whether you allow your child to read the book or not, the process of deciding can be a teachable moment for both you and your child.