On a recent visit, my sister was shocked to discover that my boys had with them a copy of Mockingjay. At first, she assumed it was Corey’s (Corey is nearly thirteen), and was therefore even more horrified to learn that it was Evan’s book. Evan is eight.
My sister accosted me later that night (with my boys and hers all tucked up in various beds, visions of Minecraft dancing in their heads) and asked how I had come to the decision to let Evan tackle The Hunger Games books. She did not approach on an attack vector ––“How dare you let him read this trash!” No, no. Opinionated my sister certainly is, but she’s a smart (and tolerant) cookie.
Even so, my answer took the better part of twenty minutes to deliver, because I myself am puzzled by why Evan is reading The Hunger Games and why I (having viewed The Hunger Games and read Catching Fire) am at least tacitly condoning his choice.
In retrospect, I suppose my response boils down to two points. First, nearly all of Evan’s third-grade classmates have already devoured The Hunger Games series, and second, my experience with other forms of screen and print violence tell me that Evan does not process or receive said violence in the same way that I did at his age. Also, his age-appropriate built-in shock-resistant sensors instantly gloss over pretty much anything sexual.
For those who saw my last post (“The Scariest Hour in TV History”), you will already know that I have ‘fessed up to being a scaredy-cat kid. Had The Hunger Games existed when I was Evan’s age, I would have made it no farther than the start of the actual games before slamming the covers shut. The action described would have been too adrenalized, too fearsome, and certainly too nightmare-inducing for my fragile eight-year-old psyche.
My sister, at forty-something, had much the same response; she described her Hunger Games reading experience as sufficiently pulse-pounding and tense that it gave her a headache.
Evan, however, is in the superhero phase of his young life. The good guys fell their opponents with clear, bold strokes, and evil always loses. When his school went through an all-too-real lockdown recently, the upper grades feared for their lives; there was genuine trauma, and many tears shed. Meanwhile, Evan and his fellow third graders plotted how they would bust out their “ninja moves” on “the robber” when he came through the door. He still seems wistfully disappointed that “the robber” never arrived.
The violence of The Hunger Games comes to Evan via this hyper moral and highly distanced lens. The book’s fictive reality –– the part that bothers many adults, my sister included –– simply doesn’t compute. Instead, the conflict gets translated and even transformed. Yesterday, Evan invented a new form of dodge-ball in which eight or more balls (all shapes and sizes) are gathered in the middle of a playing space. All participants retreat to various corners (“spawn points”) and at the word “Go!” we rush all at once, all together, to claim what balls we can and tag the others out. It’s the cornucopia brought to playground life. (Try it for yourself; it’s a great diversion.)
Nevertheless, Evan’s indoctrination into all things Hunger Gamey comes with a double standard: mine. I am not willing to let him watch the film. At least not yet. Is this fair? I’m honestly not sure. There’s a level of photo-realism to the film The Hunger Games that seems to me to be inescapable, untranslatable. The attack by the girl with the knives is scary, taut stuff, as is the mauling by those genetically modified pit bulls. In the very first (awful, gruesome) moments of the game proper, the youngest of the sacrificial lambs is done in with a ferocious splatter of blood. (My artistic differences with the film are assayed at length on my very own Anti-Blog, from April 5th, 2012.)
But is my “book yes, movie no” stance an untenable double standard?
Neil Gaiman would likely say so. In a recent essay (and I cannot for the life of me remember where I read this), he states that it’s “condescending” for any adult to forbid access to a book based on nothing but a child’s age. Perhaps he would say the same about films?
And yet, the “best of intentions” clause, included in all parenting manuals, insists that there is an optimal window for people to encounter (or first encounter) any given book. My older boy, Corey, tackled The Fellowship of the Ring too early, and only now, two years later, is he curious about The Two Towers. I tried to steer him away from Fellowship at the time (he had just turned eleven), and looking back, I stand by both my advice and my decision to let him shoulder past said advice.
Should one read A Catcher in the Rye at age eleven? Or Bury My Heart at Wounded Knee? What about Little, Big? Mr. Gaiman may have a point that to refuse a child their shot at reading above their station is condescending, but not all books are pitched at children, just as Spot Visits the Farm is not pitched at adults. It can indeed be better to wait.
Are movies really so different? Here’s the previous paragraph, re-written to include (deliberately incendiary) films:
Should one watch Thelma and Louise at age eleven? Or Leaving Las Vegas? What about Pan’s Labyrinth? Mr. Gaiman may have a point that to refuse a child their shot at “reading” above their station is condescending, but not all movies are pitched at children, just as The Teletubbies is not pitched at adults. It can indeed be better to wait.
My inconsistency rears its head on other fronts, too. My wife and I keep National Public Radio on for hours every day, and we don’t turn it off when the subject turns to –– well, you name it. War. Famine. Bombings in Boston, where much of my extended family still lives. The world is violent, and children must discover, via any number of methods, how to cope with that violence.
Yesterday, Evan’s best buddy “Andy” came over to play. I asked Andy if he had read The Hunger Games. “No,” he said, because his parents wouldn’t let him. I asked if he wanted to read it. “No,” he said, “not really.” I asked if his classmates were reading it. Again, “No.”
Andy, then, is living a lucky life, at least in this regard. His class has not pushed forward quite as quickly, so the peer pressure to absorb “older” books is absent. Not that Andy is free of aggressive impulses. He and Evan spent most of their day as Jedi, beating the crap out of imaginary droids, Sith, and clones. Heroes of their tale and masters of their universe, Evan and Andy busted out all sorts of crazy ninja moves; by the time the sun had set, not a robber was left standing.
But I worry, still, that somewhere out in the tangle of trees behind my house, Katniss Everdeen is lurking, bow drawn, and she’s aiming for my child.
Mark Rigney’s latest story for Black Gate was “The Find,” which Tangent Online called “reminiscent of the old sword & sorcery classics… A must read.” You can see what all the fuss is about here.