The Hunger Games: Why I’m Teaching It To My Sixth Grade English Class
Two springs ago, l lobbied to add Edward Lear’s Book of Nonsense to the syllabus of my sixth grade English Humanities class. The response was positive. But not heated. It wasn’t even really that excited: “Sounds good,” I heard. “Seems like fun. Always a good idea to mix things up and keep the reading list interesting.”
One year later, I made the same pitch for The Hunger Games. This time response was different. Very different. It seems that everyone has an opinion about this book. Including people who haven’t read it. My very favorite reaction came from a student who, scandalized that it hadn’t been on this year’s reading list, begged: “Would you please fail me so I can take this class again?” Envy ruled the day, and many of my former sixth graders felt as if I’d betrayed them with the most unkindest cut of all. “Did you have something against our sixth grade? Because I think you did!” cried one. Yet another wrote to me: “David! So unfair! We should have gotten to read The Hunger Games!”
But the response wasn’t totally positive. That’s not to say there were really any negatives. I mean, no one came right out and said, “What are you thinking?” No, the dissenting voices were more…skeptical. And confused. This was expressed with tremendous clarity (and no small measure of courage) by an eleven year old girl about to finish her sixth grade year. Amid the barrage of “how-could-you-let-next-year’s-class-read-this-and-not-give-it-to-us?” questioning, this student meekly raised her hand and, when called upon, said:
“Well…not to be disrespectful or anything, but…well, it doesn’t really seem as if The Hunger Games belongs with the other stuff that we read in this class.”
I was prepared for the comment; I just didn’t think it would come from a student. “What do you mean?” I asked.
“Well…I’m sorry, I’m not trying to be rude, but…think about it. I mean, we spent the whole year reading Edgar Allan Poe and Kafka.” (My sixth grade students read and write critically about Poe during the fall semester; by spring, they are doing the same with some of Franz Kafka’s shorter works, including The Metamorphosis.) She went on, “I mean, even To Kill a Mockingbird seems more…I don’t know, when I think about the other books, it seems like The Hunger Games doesn’t really belong.”
And there you have it. Sure, Suzanne Collins’ runaway bestseller is great story telling. And fun. And exciting. Like the Harry Potter series that came before, it is getting kids excited about reading. Which, in an age of shortening attention spans, is really saying something. We may differ on the merits The Hunger Games, but still agree on its social and cultural importance.
But what about as a piece of literature? How does The Hunger Games stack up against the other books on this august, impressive reading list?
When Stephen King accepted The National Book Foundation’s Medal for Distinguished Contribution to American Letters in 2003, he said:
For far too long the so-called popular writers of this country and the so-called literary writers have stared at each other with animosity and a willful lack of understanding.
The same might be said of readers. Even those of us who read and enjoy both “genre fiction” and “literature” still feel the need to make the two of them separate. I mean, I like a good beach read as much as the next guy. But The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo? It’s not exactly Moby Dick, now is it? Or Bleak House. Or The Metamorphosis. No, ours is an age of compartmentalization, especially when it comes to culture. I can read genre fiction. I can enjoy genre fiction. I’ll even put my neck out and recommend genre fiction. But at some point, if I’m going to be worth my weight in critical essays, I have to know that this genre fiction is different from, well…you know. Jonathan Franzen? Alice Munro? C’mon! I don’t really need to explain this, now. Do I?
I’m pretty sure that my brave sixth grader hasn’t read Franzen or Munro. (Then again, knowing her, maybe she has.) But like so many of my students, she is smart. She pays attention. And she’s figured it out: a genre book like The Hunger Games is fundamentally different from a literary classic. Isn’t putting them all on the same reading list giving The Hunger Games a promotion that’s, at the very least, premature?
Perhaps. And to be fair, comparing anything to the mind bending, bizarre genius of Franz Kafka is a dangerous proposition at best. So I have no intention of ranking the books on my syllabus. (“Coming in at number one we have The Metamorphosis, followed by Annabel Lee at a close second!”) But a syllabus is (or should be) a family of books. With this in mind, here are three reasons why, in just two weeks, I’ll be teaching The Hunger Games to my sixth grade English class:
1. Myth, Folktale, and the Lessons of Joseph Campbell
As of September 4th, I have four to six weeks to teach a folktale and mythology unit. It’s a great place to start with kids who are at the very beginning of their lives as middle school English students.
But for the past two years, I’ve felt less than satisfied with my approach to the myth and folktale unit. It’s not that anyone was complaining. In fact, we were having a great time reading, discussing, and writing about such myths as Daphne and Apollo and Echo and Narcissus. But my teaching plan lacked one essential ingredient: an intellectual framework that helped students understand how these myths related to other stories they would encounter, both in and out of the classroom.
At about the same time, many of those same students were encouraging me to read The Hunger Games. (A word of advice to my colleagues: if more than student recommends a book, make time in your personal schedule to check it out.) Finally, I picked it up and started reading. Thirty pages in, I decided I wanted to teach it. Not just as a book, but as the primary text in the folktale/mythology unit.
The Hunger Games is set in a futuristic North America known as Panem. (Here’s your spoiler alert.) A brutally authoritarian government long ago repressed a popular rebellion. Now, as punishment, it annually requires that each of its twelve districts provide two young “tributes” to participate in a reality television program known “The Hunger Games.” The players are chosen by lottery; everyone between the age of twelve and eighteen must enter. The chosen two from each district must participate in The Hunger Games. Every year the rules are the same: twenty-four young people are set loose in an enclosed and dangerous outdoor environment. These children must fight to the death. The final survivor wins.
It’s a terrific premise for a middle reader, futuristic adventure tale. But does it belong in a folktale/mythology unit? Absolutely. Fans of the TV series Battlestar Galactica know that sci-fi frequently draws heavily on religion and mythology for plot and theme. The Hunger Games’ heroine Katniss Everdeen bears more than a passing resemblance to the archeress/huntress nymph Daphne, as well as the goddess Artemis. Collins herself has stated that the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur served as partial inspiration for the plot of the book.
But in my opinion, Katniss’ true mythological antecedent appears in the character of Odysseus. Her journey is long, painful, and fraught with tremendous danger. Her trials are harrowing, and seemingly insurmountable. Her adversaries are monstrous. She fights her battles not with brute force, but planning, calculation, shrewdness, and cunning. Like Odysseus, her fate often rests arbitrarily in the hands of the Gamemakers (who in The Odyssey are called simply, “the gods”). Most importantly, Katniss and Odysseus want the same thing: to survive. Survive, get home, and be reunited with their faithful and long suffering families.
Sixty-three years ago, a scholar by the name of Joseph Campbell wrote a book called The Hero With a Thousand Faces. His thesis was both simple and radical: every myth and folktale ever told or written follows essentially the same story. He called it “The Monomyth” – or “The Hero’s Journey”. Odysseus, Guatama Buddha, Jesus, Gilgamesh, even Cinderella: in each we find protagonist who
…ventures forth from the world of common day into a region of supernatural wonder: fabulous forces are there encountered and a decisive victory is won; the hero comes back from this mysterious adventure with the power to bestow boons upon his fellow man.
Campbell further argues that the Hero’s Journey is our journey, writing: “…dream is the personalized myth, myth the depersonalized dream.” And the life and death stakes of these adventures arise from the terrifying, awesome mystery of existence itself: “Only birth can conquer death-the birth, not of the old thing again, but of something new.”
And the model only begins with folklore and antiquity. A long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away, an up and coming film maker named George Lucas picked up his well loved copy of The Hero With a Thousand Faces and began to read it again. Joseph Campbell’s fingerprints can be seen all over the original Star Wars movie (which, as my nine year old son never tires of reminding me, is now called Star Wars, Episode IV: A New Hope. Nick has me well trained, but I still can’t get used to it.) Lucas has never been shy in acknowledging his debt to Campbell; towards the end of the scholar’s life, the two men became friends.
So it is that Katniss Everdeen takes her place alongside Harry Potter, Luke Skywalker, and Frodo Baggins, all modern incarnations of the ancient, primal archetype: the hero.
2. The Hardships of Adolescence
Earlier this year, film critic David Denby reviewed the film adaptation of The Hunger Games for The New Yorker. His attempt to explain the extraordinary popularity of the book and its sequels amongst young people drips with equal measures of snark and condescension:
“…the reason for its success is simple: it makes teens feel both victimized and important.”
Oh, those teenagers. So full of drama. Always feeling sorry for themselves. Riddled with self pity and narcisism. What a relief that adults aren’t like that, huh, or where would the whole world come to?
With all due respect to Mr. Denby…teens are important. Not to mention victimized. The NCCP tells us that the number of American children living in poverty increased by 21% between 2000 and 2008, which means that (as of 2010) at least 2.5 more kids live in poverty today than did twelve years ago. And America’s official threshold for “poverty” is atrociously low: $22,050 a year for a family of four. Earn one dollar more per year, and you’re no longer considered impoverished. So much for the American commitment to so called family values.
They don’t call it The Hunger Games for nothing. Before the book begins, Katniss Everdeen’s father has died in a coal mining accident. She becomes the head of household, and, with her father’s handcrafted set of bow and arrows, supports her mother and sister by hunting illegally. By establishing these given circumstances in the book’s first pages, Collins connects her fictional heroine with millions of real life young people who don’t know where their next meal will come from.
You’d think that during an election year, at least one of the major candidates for president would aggressively propose a solution to the problem of 41% of our children living in low-income families. Oops. Neither Barack Obama nor Mitt Romney has made it a campaign issue. In fact, both candidates have been strangely silent about any issue pertaining to the well being of people under the age of eighteen.* Gee, I wonder why. Is it perhaps because eighteen is the threshold age for voting?
Sure. But here’s the real reason: people who do vote don’t care about kids. If that sounds harsh, take a look at the polls. Kid specific issues aren’t even on the radar. Sure, you could argue that “economy in general” affects everybody. But what about our embarrassingly underfunded system of public education? What about bullying? Where is the national conversation about the wellbeing of our young people? Evidently, it’s a talk that most of us just aren’t ready to have.
The candidates, the media, and the voters missed (or ignored) a major opportunity to address one of these issues last spring. On May 10, 2012, The Washington Post ran a meticulously researched article showing that Mitt Romney had bullied a fellow prep school student by forcibly cutting his hair. (Romney reportedly had a group of friends pin down the victim, who sobbed and tried to resist.) When the story came out, nobody suggested that this incident should bar Mitt Romney from the Oval Office – a reasonable and appropriate omission. There are lots of statistics on bullying; all show that it is prevalent among middle and high schooler students. If bullying disqualified a person from becoming president, the field of selection might be very narrow indeed.
Yet here was an opportunity for a national conversation. Romney might have come clean, and used his past as a means to work towards a safer environment for young people. President Obama might have praised his opponent’s candor. And both candidates could have, just this once, put aside their differences, and addressed one of the most troubling concerns facing young people today. And if either man balked, the voters could have held both candidates accountable. We could have demanded that conversation. That would have been an awesome moment, not just for our young people, but for all Americans.
It didn’t happen. Romney said he couldn’t remember the incident, punting: “I participated in a lot of hijinks and pranks during high school, and some might have gone too far. And for that, I apologize.” Obama and his campaign shamefully refrained from pressing the issue. And the voters? We simply allowed it to drop.
Are American teenagers thrown into a bloody arena and left to fight it out to the death? Perhaps not literally. (At least not on our shores.) But they don’t need to read The Hunger Games to feel victimized; the book simply uses fiction and metaphor to dramatize conditions that already exist.
And yet, if Denby is right, and The Hunger Games does make teens feel important…well, that’s just one more reason for me to get in the classroom and teach it.
3. The Hunger Games is Well Written
At least two of my students disagree with me on this one. A friend of mine confessed to that she’d read and enjoyed the book, only to call it ‘trashy’. While I will never discourage a kid from critiquing a book’s prose, I sometimes wonder if adults offer up the ‘guilty pleasure’ excuse as a middle-brow insurance policy against the slings and arrows of outrageous snobbery. Which puts us back where we started. Genre vs. literature. Art vs. entertainment. Enrichment vs. fun. It’s so important to know the difference; none of us wants to appear ignorant.
Actually, I’m more than happy to appear extremely ignorant. So somebody tell me: what’s wrong The Hunger Games? Let’s focus on the writing: what specifically is wrong with it? Does somebody want to point to a specific passage in the book and suggest how it might be improved?
When I forget how to write well (which happens frequently) I turn to an essay called Politics and The English Language. Written by George Orwell, it is the first, last, and best word on clear and excellent writing. If you’ve never read it, click on the link and learn from the master. But if you only have time today to read one essay, here is the thrust of Orwell’s argument:
A scrupulous writer, in every sentence that he writes, will ask himself at least four questions, thus: 1. What am I trying to say? 2. What words will express it? 3. What image or idiom will make it clearer? 4. Is this image fresh enough to have an effect?
Virtually every page of The Hunger Games answers “yes” to Orwell’s four essential questions. Employing the immediacy of the first person, present tense narrative, Collins eschews florid, elaborate descriptions in favor of short, terse sentences that Dashiell Hammett would have been proud of. Here are just five examples of Collins’ prose, quoted from different sections of the book:
The reek of vomit and raw spirits almost brings my dinner up.
Slowly, my mother returned to us.
When I wake up, the other side of my bed is cold.
Suddenly, the birds fall silent.
I wonder if she’ll enjoy watching me die.
A teacher of mine once said: “If you want to understand Shakespeare, pay attention to the beginning of the very first scene. Everything you need to know about the play is right there.” The same is true of great novels. The first page of The Hunger Games appears deceptively mundane, describing Katniss getting out of bed, then being accosted by her sister’s cat. But that first page sets the reader up for virtually everything that follows. From the use of the word “cocooned” to describe the insular safety of the mother and sister sleeping together (and foreshadowing seismic transformations about to occur), to the recollection of Katniss’ earlier, unsuccessful attempt to drown the cat (already revealing that the heroine is a natural predator), Collins demonstrates a sure, admirable, and exciting control of her craft.
Of course, there’s more, so much more, that makes The Hunger Games a wonderful piece for young people to read, re-read, and critique. How abot book’s exploration of gender roles? Near the beginning, Katniss’ glamorous transformation into a celebrity mirrors Cinderella’s; once in the games, she takes on the prince’s role in Sleeping Beauty by rescuing her ailing love interest (?), and reviving him with a kiss. Or how about the book’s blistering critique of pop culture, and its implicit comparison between modern day America and the gladiatorial games of the Roman Empire? The Hunger Games is a terrific book by any measure, one that will live comfortably alongside the other titles on the class reading list. And if all goes well, the now familiar creations of Suzanne Collins will pave the way for the less familiar worlds of Poe, Kafka, and Harper Lee. Where’s the allegory in The Conqueror Worm? What does Katniss Everdeen have in common with Scout Finch? Teachers should always seek material that inspires their students to risk; I know I’ve found that in The Hunger Games. Regardless of how we choose to classify this book, I’m confident that it has something to teach all of us, with endless opportunities for enrichment.
And we might even get to have fun.
August 22, 2012
Always feel free to post a comment and get a discussion going. Keep your remarks civil, but don’t feel bashful about starting a vigorous and healthy debate.
* Since the drafting of this article, President Obama stressed the importance of Pell Grants as a means of helping young people go to college affordably. Whether or not this sparks a sizable debate, or has any traction with the voters remains to be seen.