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“The Hunger Games” Empowering or Too Dark for Teens?

by Audrey Barbakoff March 28, 2012

If you braved last weekend’s jam-packed theaters at Bainbridge Cinemas to see “The Hunger Games,” you are far from alone. The movie based on the book by Suzanne Collins pulled in a whopping $155 million during its opening weekend, making it one of the highest-grossing debuts ever.

Although beloved books often disappoint in the theater, reviews have been strong. Rotten Tomatoes awarded it an 85% fresh rating, saying “Thrilling and superbly acted, ‘The Hunger Games’ captures the dramatic violence, raw emotion, and ambitious scope of its source novel.”

However, not everybody is happy with The Hunger Games and other dark young adult (YA) books and movies like it. The release of the movie has brought back controversy over a June 2011 article in the Wall Street Journal, “Darkness Too Visible.” “Contemporary fiction for teens is rife with explicit abuse, violence and depravity,” argued author Megan Cox Gurdon. “Why is this considered a good idea?”

Many parents and others agreed that exposing teens to too much darkness and brutality could normalize it, to the detriment of teens’ innocence, happiness, and moral development. “Kids have plenty of time to grow up,” agreed commenter Will Granger.

The Hunger Games cover. A group that included teens, librarians, and YA authors launched a heartfelt campaign to defend YA books that deal with difficult themes. Sherman Alexie, author of The Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian, responded in the Wall Street Journal with “Why the Best Kids Books are Written in Blood.” He argued that books that speak to teens’ already dark experiences and emotions are empowering. Recalling his own troubled teenage years, Alexie writes, “I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.”

The protest went grassroots when YA author Maureen Johnson wrote on Twitter, “Did YA help you? Let the world know how! Tell your story with a #YAsaves tag.” YA Saves became a rallying cry for those whose lives have been positively affected by teen lit with challenging themes. A response penned by Cheryl Rainfield, author of the YA book Scars, echoes many of the popular arguments. She wrote, “I get 2-3 reader letters every week telling me that Scars helped readers—teens telling me that Scars helped them to stop cutting, get into therapy, know they’re not alone, talk about incest or self-harm or being queer when they never had been able to before.” Read her full response.

Like Alexie and many others, Rainfield, who was ritually abused by both of her parents, concluded that even the darkest of YA novels is ultimately about healing and hope. “I think what helps us bring good into the world, and stop the things that hurt people so much, is to talk about the darkness, bring it out into the open, and encourage healing, compassion, and love.”

Do you think books and movies like The Hunger Games are hurtful or hopeful for teens? Take our Inside Bainbridge poll in the right column of our Home page.


Audrey Barbakoff is Adult Services Librarian at the Bainbridge Island branch of the Kitsap Regional Library. She regularly reviews nonfiction for Library Journal.


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