Although I read The Hunger Games series quite some time ago, it was only recently that Phoebe was allowed to read it. I remember some of her classmates reading it when she was in 3rd/4th grade, and that, I felt, was way too young. Common Sense Media rates it at age twelve and up, and that seems to be right. It is really no more violent than the later Harry Potter books, but the violence is more realistic since this is not a magical world, so that needs to be taken into consideration by parents. It is also helpful when the parent can vet the book in advance. Since this was Phoebe’s first foray into dystopian fiction, I decided that we would read the first book together, and then she could read the other two (Catching Fire and Mockingjay) on her own. This way, we could talk about what was happening as we went. Potential spoilers ahead!
So, the negatives first. This series is violent–the whole premise centers on kids between 12-18 being forced to kill each other. Although the violence is not graphically described, people do die–twenty-two of the twenty-four Tributes perish in the first book, and most of them do not die easily or well. Even Katniss and Peeta experience grave injuries and suffer pain, thirst, and hunger in addition to the loss of allies and friends. It is intense.
In addition to the violence, people also lie, plot, and break the law. Regardless of the necessity of it, Katniss and Gale knowingly break the law when they hunt outside the fence. Katniss pretends to love Peeta to give herself an advantage in the Games. That her feelings get complicated doesn’t change the fact that she thinks it is largely an act on everyone’s part. Haymitch is a drunk, which raises other concerns and questions. The people who live in the Capitol are shallow and narcissistic. And most of these concepts continue through the other two books.
However, these exact things are what make the series worthwhile. There are countless conversations to be had based on the things that happen. Katniss and Gale breaking the law to hunt can begin a discussion of ethics. What is one supposed to do when faced with an unjust law? When one might have to do something wrong in order to survive? This can lead to a conversation about places in our world where women are denied education, where people are denied clean water or proper healthcare. It can also lead to global awareness, which is often lacking with young adults, and activism. A series like this is a perfect opportunity to connect the fictional world and the real world, and to explore how to avoid a world like the one Collins describes becoming our reality.
Katniss is also an effective role model. Is she perfect? No. But she is skilled, smart, and tough. She and Gale are a team–she is not dependent on him. She takes care of her family when no one else is there to do so. She is willing to put her life on the line for her sister, literally. She defies the Capitol by publicly mourning Rue and by gambling that the Gamemakers will let her and Peeta live rather than have no Victor at all. Does her defiance get her into trouble? Sure, but that serves to make her more human. People mess up.
Phoebe says: I loved the Hunger Games series. I liked how although Katniss wanted to win the games for Prim, she also didn’t want to kill any of the other tributes. When her sister Prim was chosen at the Reaping, Katniss volunteered as District 12’s tribute. It wasn’t a small thing for her to volunteer; she was risking her life for her sister. When she was in the arena, she created an alliance with Rue, who reminded Katniss of her sister. They created a plan to blow up the Career’s food. In the process Rue was killed. Katniss
covered Rue’s body with flowers and truly mourned her. Rue was her friend, and Katniss wanted to be honest about that.
Katniss was also very smart. She was able to get her own food and when she almost dead, found water. Near the end of the first book, when there were only a few of them left, the Gamemakers put a backpack for each of the remaining districts in the front of the arena. Each of the backpacks had what each district needed most. Peeta had blood poisoning and was dying. Katniss knew that the bag for District 12 had medicine for Peeta. Peeta didn’t want her to go, but Katniss felt she had to, so she drugged him and went anyway–and that saved his life. Katniss risked her life once again and got the backpack for Peeta.
When Katniss and Peeta were the only ones left, they were told that there could only be one victor, but then Katniss remembered that they had to have at least one victor. She got poisonous berries, and she and Peeta threatened to eat them. The Gamemakers immediately stopped them and crowned them both the victors.
In the next two books, Katniss continues to risk her life for her friends and for the people she loves. She does her best to stay true to herself and not play the games everyone else is playing, but she doesn’t always have a choice. She has to step forward or nothing will change or get better. She is a fighter, and I like that about her.