Age vs. Experience

I just finished reading both The Hunger Games and Catching Fire.

Yeah, yeah, yeah, I was late to the party.

This isn’t going to be a book review. I’m no good at those, and they’d probably come out like some half-rate book report like the kind I used to write in fifth grade. Besides, you can find a bazillion reviews all over the net. Those books are bestsellers, and with good reason: they tell a great story, the characters are fantastic, and the writing has some serious depth.

This wasn’t Suzanne Collins’ first attempt at writing. She had another series going well before The Hunger Games trilogy hit the stands. She’s also in her late forties, and one interview mentioned that she drew inspiration from her father’s career in the Air Force, to better understand poverty, starvation, and the effects of war. (Thanks, Wikipedia.) The books are intense. There’s a lot of violence, a lot of drama, and a lot of thought provoking moments. These are books about kids being thrown into an arena to kill each other — for televised entertainment. It’s like the ultimate Survivor.

The books also touch on a corrupt, oppressive government, with some vivid scenes showing how violations and uprisings would be punished. Characters are threatened, tortured, and brutally killed.

And these books are recommended for age 12 and up.

I’ve read a couple reviews where people are up in arms about the violence. People wonder if these books are too violent for kids to read, or if the themes are too mature.

But here’s the thing about reading: it’s just words on a page. Your imagination is only going to take you so far. I’m an adult, with a husband and family. I can understand how tragic and terrifying it would be to see my child dragged into an arena to fight for his life. A thirteen year old boy, who doesn’t have kids? He’s going to get a glimpse of the pain based on the effective writing. But those words aren’t going to have the same impact for him as they do for me.

That’s part of the problem with censoring YA books. There’s a big drama about Ellen Hopkins, bestselling author of Crank, being un-invited from a recent author event. It’s ridiculous. Some parents thought her books were too dark. Crank is about methamphetamine addiction. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard it’s quite powerful.

Kids read for a lot of reasons. But one of the biggest reasons is that it’s a safe way to explore intense and frightening experiences. A safe way. Because they’re just words on a page.

When I was in high school, I read Tale of the Body Thief about fifteen times. It’s an Anne Rice novel, and in it, the vampire Lestat acquires a human body. See, as a vampire, he wasn’t able to experience human things like eating, peeing, and having sex.

Yeah, you read that right. Having sex. I was maybe fifteen years old, and I read that book a dozen times. Of course I was a virgin, and I was going to an all girls’ school. I knew all about the mechanics of sex (thanks, Mom), but I didn’t have any experience. I read all about it. It didn’t scar me. It didn’t make me run out and have sex with the first guy I met. I’d never seen a naked man, and I’d certainly never felt a man touch me in an intimate way, so in reading Rice’s words, I was limited to my imagination. Nothing threatening there.

I’m sure reading that book again now would be a totally different experience.

Kids aren’t as sheltered as we think they are. They see stories of real life murders and rapes on television every day. I have a friend who’s a high school teacher, and when 9/11 happened, she said that an administrator came over the intercom and asked all the teachers to turn on the news station in their classrooms. My friend had been teaching all morning, so she had no idea what was going on. She turned on the news.

And then she had to explain to a room full of terrified sixteen-year-olds what was happening. Completely unprepared. Do you remember the 9/11 footage? I was at work, and since I work for a brokerage firm, we have the news on 24/7. I watched the footage from start to finish, from the planes hitting the towers, to the people leaping out of the building because suicide was a quicker death than burning. It was terrible. Every minute of it.

Kids all over the country watched it. And that was real.

Books are safe. Saying a book is too violent, or too pornographic, or too intense for kids is ridiculous.

Because books are limited to words. Readers are limited to their imagination.

A book is never going to take you farther than you’re ready to go.


7 thoughts on “Age vs. Experience

  1. Excellent post–one of your best. I can’t scream “amen” loud enough. Among other books, I, too, read Anne Rice as a teenager. And I read Stephen King. And I read Judy Blume’s “Wifey.” And I read one porn novel I picked up at a flea market for 10 cents when I was about 12. I’m not violent now and I wasn’t then. I’m not a sex addict now and I wasn’t then. I was just curious about a lot of things then that I wanted to know more about–and to know about safely.

    I’m a more involved parent than my parents were. I simply have more time than they did. And I admit I’m tempted now and then to over-monitor what my 13yo son reads. Tempted. I don’t actually go through and pull books off his shelves, because real-life is way scarier than any book he could ever read.

  2. Great points. I can remember when the head librarian was shocked to discover I was reading books from the “adult section” of the library in the eighth grade. Fortunately, the kid’s librarian stuck up for my reading books written for adults.

    As you said, teens and younger kids are exposed to all sorts of dark subjects. I agree with Bobbie, kid’s need safe outlets to explore the consequences of those subjects.

  3. This was an amazing post, Brigid. My 13 year old son is in to Sherman Alexie books. Alexie is an amazing writer who really speaks to my son. Some of the subject matter freaked my husband out so I had to remind him of the books like “Forever” and “Are You There God, It’s Me Margaret” by Judy Blume.

    I, as well as the rest of the girls in my Catholic 8th grade class room would hide them in our desks, reading them whenever we got the chance.

    As far I I’m concerned, any book that gets my son to read AND THINK is worthwhile.

  4. 1) Love the new background.

    2) This is one of your best and most powerful (powerfulest should be a word, lol) posts yet!

    I’ve actually been contemplating how it will feel to reread THE HUNGER GAMES once I have children, and how the horror of sending all those kids to the arena will be like…way worse. But I also feel like I’d be better able to understand Katniss’ refusal to have children in that kind of a world.

    Anyway, your 9/11 example was perfect. I was in high school (in Manhattan) on 9/11, and I remember just standing in the teacher’s lounge, watching everything live on the news…while it was happening just a few miles downtown from me. It seeing that was way worse than anything I’d ever read in a book. In fact, I think I buried myself in books for a few months after that, because they felt a hell of a lot safer than the world I suddenly found myself living in.

    And yeah–I was reading books when I was 13+ that had TONS of graphic sex in them, and it had like…zero influence on me. In fact, even though I read some pretty racy stuff, I didn’t have sex until I was 18…and I wound up marrying the guy I lost my v-card to. 😛

    Sorry if that’s TMI.

  5. Wow, thanks for all the comments, guys!! My husband and I were just discussing this in the car the other day, and it kind of occurred to me that censorship is always about adults — who have a different worldview — censoring on behalf of kids. Kids are still going to read the books anyway. They’ll just do it in the dark, or under the covers, or away from home.

    Thanks again for all the comments. You guys rock.

  6. The books that worry me are the ones with very subtly dangerous undercurrents of racism, sexism, etc. However, I’m not about to tell a kid not to read Twilight or Maze Runner. I just want them to talk to me about it afterward: Did they NOTICE the undercurrents? What does the author want you to feel/believe here? Why is this something to be aware of instead of letting it go into your subconscious?
    The trouble is that kids must be taught to do those things; otherwise they just take what they read at face value. (Then later on they take advertisements, insurance people, and politicians at face value also.)
    Bottom line: kids should have most of the say in what they read, but adults need to talk to the kids and teach them how to analyze it.

    Hunger Games — I got half-way through it and put it down. Well-written, yes, but not my kind of thing. (I just did a post on this today, BTW, which is sort of an odd coincidence.)

  7. Sarah, I have 4 kids, and is it heartless to say I never really thought about them while reading the arena scenes? A world like that just doesn’t seem plausible to me–at least not at this point in our world’s history. Though perhaps I’m naive. But when I watched “Life Is Beautiful” I sobbed . . . in the theater . . . that loud, hiccuping kind of sob. Not pretty. I was pregnant with my second child, and all I could think about was how parents really had lived through that world.

    Again, it goes back to the discussion of how books are a safe place to explore the ugly things in life.

    And I agree, Paperback Writer, that it’s important to at least talk with your kids about what they’re reading in order to help them understand how to process it all.

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