Reading Across the Ages at the Library

by Bill Peak

The other day, while dropping off my truck for its annual check-up, I noticed a copy of The Hunger Games protruding from the purse of the lady typing my information into the dealership's computer. I wasn't surprised. Though marketed as a “Teen” book, Suzanne Collins' novel has proven immensely popular with adults as well. When I asked the lady what she thought of the book, she positively beamed. “I stayed up till two o'clock this morning reading it! Can you believe they're calling it a children's book?!”

Well yes, actually, I can. I mean the line between children's literature and adult's has always been a little hazy, hasn't it? Alice in Wonderland, A Christmas Carol, The Narnian Cycle—these are all “children's books” that, despite following a perfectly conventional juvenile path, nevertheless veer off from time to time into decidedly grown-up territory. Like any unexpected detour, these shifts in direction can be jarring; just as, I am sure, children find it jarring when their own thoughts stray into areas normally the province of adult minds.

So what are we to make of such books? And more important still, what are we to make of a book like The Hunger Games whose adult area of concern is admittedly rather disturbing? No, we're not talking sex here. Throughout the book the main character's experiences with the opposite sex remain surprisingly (for the time we live in) chaste. The same, however, cannot be said for her experience of violence. Violence—the use of violence to subdue and oppress subject peoples—is a central theme of Collins' work. But what is even more disturbing is that this violence is directed toward the young. One is reminded of Kazuo Ishiguro's Never Let Me Go and Shirley Jackson's The Lottery. Is this the sort of literature we want our kids to be reading?

On the other hand, do we really want our children to grow up thinking bad things never happen, that death doesn't happen, that all adults, in all circumstances, are to be trusted? I first read The Lottery when I was twelve and I can still remember the terror I felt when—despite the fact I had never experienced anything remotely similar—the story suddenly rang a bell and I realized what was going on, what was going to happen. Of course the example of Nazi Germany was in those days still fresh; the notion that a nation might betray its contract with the young had not yet faded into sepia-toned past.

Each summer I host a book group for young people. This year, for the first time, I'm going to invite grown-ups to take part in the group as well. We will be reading The Hunger Games. If you're interested in America's young—what they think and what they read—won't you check out a copy of the book, read it, share it with someone young or old, and then sign up for our discussion? I look forward to hearing what the different generations have to say about this fascinating, disturbing, captivating work.