I can think of only two times in my teaching life when a student has said, “You must read this book!” The first one, about 6 years ago, was a young man who demanded that I read the Japanese cult book, Battle Royale, and the second, this past spring, was another young man who demanded that I read The Hunger Games Trilogy. Neither is a book I would have read under any other circumstances, since I tend to avoid dystopian fiction in general. (I found Cormac McCarthy’s The Road about the most depressing book I have ever read.) However I respect both these young men, finding them smart, thoughtful and interesting people. I also understand the implicit compliment underlying their urgings, and I do not take that lightly, so in both cases, I reluctantly read the books. I confess that it took me weeks to finish Battle Royale. The translation was clunky, the story just dreary and the print, in the copy I had, miniscule. I confessed to the student, when I returned the book to him, that I could see why it would appeal to him, but that it wasn’t my favorite book.
I reacted differently, much to my surprise, to The Hunger Games. The connections between these two books have been extensively explored elsewhere, and I am not going to rehash any of that material, but what I want to talk about are the ideas in these two books that would appeal to smart, young men. Both books are very violent, taking place in a dystopian future, one in Japan and the other in a place resembling what might have been the United States. In both books, young people are pitted against each other by decrees of an authoritarian government.
In both these books, the young people, while they are supposed to be destroying each other, are required to be resourceful, smart and inventive. Each book provides readers with models who survive in difficult and dangerous circumstances. Many of our young people have no reason to develop these kinds of survival skills, and yet, traditionally, young men have sought to “prove themselves” in one way or another. These stories provide that vicarious survival.
What I also find interesting is that in both books the characters who survive are not just boys. In BR, the final survivors are a pair of kids, one boy and one girl, and in THG, where there are several survivors, the main character, the narrator of the book is a young woman, Katniss Everdeen. Katniss is one of the most interesting female characters to come along in a while. She’s strong, smart, resourceful, antiauthoritarian and compassionate. She’s tough when she needs to be and not afraid of much. It’s clear that both male and female readers find her compelling, and see her as someone worth caring about.
In the not-too-distant-past, book sellers, librarians and teachers seemed to divide young adult literature into “boys’ books” and “girls’ books.” The conventional wisdom was that boys, who were more reluctant readers, wouldn’t read books that smacked in anyway of “girls’ books. ” (Girls have never had any problems reading “boys’ books.” Girls read The Hardy Boys as much as they read Nancy Drew.) The popularity of THG demonstrates that this is changing. The student who recommended THG to me was not in any way bothered by the fact that Katniss is clearly the main character. He admired her and respected her.
So, what I see in the reactions of both these young men, (both 18 at the time they recommended the books to me) is the attraction of a “survival” story, and also complete acceptance of the equality of male and female characters. While there is much disturbing in both these books, I find that, especially in THG, there is much redeeming as well and I thank these students for urging me to read them. I look forward to the next time a student says, “You must read this book!”