And Now I Am Very Angry, or: More About The Hunger Games

I've been getting emails, strange emails, about elementary schools banning The Hunger Games from their elementary  classrooms libraries. And I am confused. And it's not just one school—it's a whole bunch of different schools. It turns out (for the most part) it's the teachers and administrations asking that parents keep the book out of the classrooms.

What do I think of this? It's tricky. And confusing. And so I will respond as I respond to all confusing things, by telling a story.

When Chestnut was in 4th grade, her class had a vote to select their next read-aloud. Kids were allowed to nominate books to the voting, and so were teachers. I talked about it here. Chestnut's teacher brought in her own nomination: The Hunger Games. I hadn't read the book, but I'd heard about it. It seemed odd, but…how bad could it be, I figured. Chestnut was brave and strong. She told me it was fine. She said she liked the book.

It's funny, because when I posted about it, a lot of you said in the comments on that post that it wasn't appropriate. And I believed you. It's just that somehow I didn't think it mattered much.

I read the book this past summer, and I was struck by what an entirely terrible choice it was for a 4th grade class read-aloud. But it was done. It was too late to do anything about it.

But as we've been hearing about these schools banning the book in their elementary school classrooms (which to me seems qualitatively different from just, say, banning the book, or not allowing it in libraries), we've been talking about it at home. And that's how I came to hear the rest of Chestnut's story. "I understand why they don't want it in the classrooms," I told her. "I mean, I understand that you were OK with it…."

"I wasn't OK with it."

What?

And it all came out. My sense that she was OK? Her stories at the time that she was fine, she wasn't scared, it was a great book? None of that was true. What was true? That she had nightmares about that book every single night. She'd thought it was going to be OK, the beginning wasn't so scary, but then all of a sudden, everything was scary. When they were halfway through the book some kids started falling apart, and the teacher said they didn't have to hear it, they could go do a different read aloud with another teacher. But, Chestnut pointed out, it was even scarier to leave Katniss there in the middle of the story, surrounded by danger. Then she would never know if it was OK! And besides, having to stand up in front of every kid in your 4th grade class and acknowledge that you were too scared to keep going? So Chestnut just dealt with it. She was terrified every day at read aloud, at night she had horrible dreams. And she made it through.

I was—I am—horrified. I understand the teachers make errors of judgment, because people make errors of judgment. But I am still angry. She was 9. What was the point? "Besides," as Chestnut pointed out tearfully the other night, "I mean, there are all kinds of books to read to kids. Why couldn't we have read Esperanza Rising? Why couldn't we have read a book for little kids?" Indeed. Because you know what you are when you're 9? You're a little kid.

Chestnut is fine, for all this drama. She has strong ideas about it all now: she thinks it's not a good book for 4th graders, but she still liked it. She feels most of the kids just got excited about the fighting, when what was important was the love—for the sister, for Katniss, for Peetah. She hopes no other kids read it before they're quite ready, because once the images are inside you, you can't get them out. And she feels she learned something: she was terrified, but it was all OK. She learned she can do it, make it through something she thinks is too scary, and she will do fine. While I think this is an important lesson, I wish she hadn't had to learn it at the hands of her teacher in 4th grade.

So, knowing all this, what do I think of keeping the book out of elementary school classrooms? I pretty much think it's fine to keep it out of the classrooms. I wish they had kept it out of ours.

I fear, of course, the possibility that following this line of reasoning is going to land me right in the middle a book burning. I hate, on principle, the idea of keeping a book out of a place of learning. But most kids aren't ready for this book—and if they are, they can read it at home, with their parents. Who will know, as I didn't, what's keeping their kids up at night. And be able to talk to them about it, instead of tossing them out into the world of images too intense, and choices too loaded, for people still in the single digits.

19 thoughts on “And Now I Am Very Angry, or: More About The Hunger Games

  1. Thanks for this post! I haven’t read the book yet, but I’ve been asked if I was going to let my third-grader try it (since she reads other “middle-grade” level books.) To which I promptly said no. (Especially since I haven’t read it yet.) It’s my job to monitor the content. Just because they can, doesn’t mean they should. And if some children do have the maturity, that’s great – they can read it individually. But a fourth-grade teacher should know her students better and have a better gauge on the appropriateness for her 9-year-old audience.
    I’ve been so upset lately with advanced school curriculum being pushed upon children before they are developmentally ready. What’s the rush?! It’s more detrimental than helpful.

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  2. I’m not okay with book banning EVER. BUT…I am a firm believer in age-appropriateness regarding books, and they are two separate issues. From everything I’ve been told about the books (I’ve never read them myself) I don’t see how they’re appropriate for children that young. Your daughter’s right: Esperanza Rising would have been a much better choice. And I think I’d be having a serious talk with the teacher about the whole thing.

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  3. This was a year ago, she is in 5th grade now and the teacher has gone on to teach elsewhere (and older kids, I think, which makes sense).
    And yes, it is weird, isn’t it, that there is this sense of having them do things before they are ready, both emotionally (sometimes) and academically. The rush to have your kid be the first to do, I don’t know, something is so bizarre given the overall trajectory of us mortals. You would think we would all try to slow it down sooner….

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  4. I totally agree that this series of books is scary. I am a lot older than nine, and I was uncomfortable with the premise. It made me feel a bit ill, but I still finished all three books.
    It is a teacher’s job to know the developmental level of the students being taught. As well as what is age appropriate for them. Heck, you can read ANYTHING out loud…the trick is to find something *perfect* to suck them in and want them to read more. And, maybe to learn something on the sly. It should be fun, not scary. I am so sorry that your daughter had to endure the nightmares of a book that might have been a good read for her later in life.
    People think I am crazy for postponing Harry Potter for my 10 year old, but I want her to love it. And, she would, until she got to book 4. Let’s be honest, once you start on a series that you love it is almost impossible to NOT read the next book if it is out there. I am glad I have been encouraging her to wait. It will be fun to read it with her!

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  5. I have read all the books and been dragged to the movie by my daughter and her friends who are irked by the PG-13 rating, which means they have to go with an adult. I agree with the assessment of Hunger Games being okay for reading at home if the child and parents are up to it, but I do think it is a little too intense for school at the elementary level. I actually found a number of scenes in the books very upsetting myself (spoiler alert: Cato is mauled to death by giant mutant dogs who have the faces of the murdered children … for hours … until he is hunk of raw meat but still alive and begging to be killed …) I also would never advocate banning a book from the school setting, but I can’t imagine myself reading that scene aloud to a room full of 9 year-olds.

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  6. THAT SHOULD BE BANNED. I think it talks WAAAAAAAAAAAAAAY too nonchalantly about death. In book 3, someone dies and I didn’t even realize he was dead.

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  7. Oh, I re-read my comment, and I didn’t want it to seem like I’m a super-diligent mom about reading EVERYTHING my daughter reads, because frankly I can’t keep up. It’s really due to blogs like this one that help me find appropriate books for my kids without reading everything out there. We were one of the early We Recommends a few years ago and I regularly lurk because I find this blog and its many comments so helpful!
    Books should never be banned (although with huge budget cuts in education, the purchasing decisions should be made pretty carefully), but a child’s personal selection is a very different situation than a Classroom Read-Aloud which represents the teacher’s stamp of approval. The child is also held hostage to hearing the content when at home she can easily set the book aside.

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  8. T&TT hit the nail on the head. Huge difference between banning and not allowing. Banning says “no, nay, never.” Not allowing says: Your parents can make the call at home, but we make the calls here and we say no.
    I read them with a book group of moms with kids of various ages. My son, a 2nd grader, is hearing all the talk about it and stating clearly how much he wants to see it or read it. And my answer is NO. Not now. Someday, yes. But not now.
    Same with A Separate Peace. Or Catcher in the Rye. Fine books, but not for a 9 year old. That’s all.

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  9. As a school librarian this issue is such a challenge for me daily. I want my kids to love reading, I want them to feel free to extend themselves and reach further and try something new…but when kids bring me really advanced books and I have to turn them away – HAVE to – the hurt and distrust in their face is also hard to face. Sometimes they are just checking these books out to be cool – like today half a first grade class begged to check out the 39 Clues series, I questioned them about what their parents would think, who would read it, described the catacombs and various misdeeds…and then let them take it home. I told the teacher to let me know if parents had a concern and I would tell them about the rush of popularity of this book and how I would recommend it to 9+ truly but that was not why kids were borrowing it…anyway, not to defend that teacher and making a unanimous decision for a read-aloud but 9 can be such a tough age these days.

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  10. I believe in discretion- which is what we are championing here. In no way would I have wanted my child to read or hear Hunger Games at that age. My daughter was upset by Roll of Thunder Hear My Cry in 5th grade, but the teacher insisted all students had to read it. Sometimes they just don’t know. I also would not let my daughter read Harry Potter 3- the first one with the dementors- until she was in 5th or 6th grade. She just was not ready when she was younger.
    And lastly, poor Chestnut and poor mom.

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  11. It is tricky, isn’t it? And while there may have been some harm done, there was no permanent harm done. Chestnut has emerged ever stronger, though it must have been a tough time (and she felt, for some reason, that she had to suffer alone, as she didn’t want me to be “right” in my concern over whether it was OK for her). And teachers have so many decisions to make each day, some of them go the wrong way. But the classroom is such a public place for a kid to struggle with these things…

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  12. Yep, that’s tricky. Teachers and admin ban all kinds of things from the classroom: chewing gum, Pokemon cards, cell phones…I do have a knee-jerk reaction to particular *books* being banned, though. What if the kid is ready for it and desperately wants to read it during silent reading time but isn’t allowed? Wouldn’t that be a situation where the teacher could facilitate a discussion about different books being appropriate for different kids at different times, rather than banning it outright? OTOH, if it’s disruptive in the classroom, the…oh, I don’t know.
    I’m still totally unambivalent about the 4th-grade read-aloud thing, though. I’m glad Chestnut is OK now, but yeah, I’d be angry, too.

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  13. Well, my 4th grader is reading it (on his own) and is completely unlikely to be fazed by it in the slightest (he is a youngest child so has a different perspective on just about everything than the older ones did). I don’t have a problem with a school deciding not to offer the book in their library or in their classroom libraries but if, as your wording has suggested, those same schools are telling parents that kids can’t be reading the book in their classrooms, then I do hae problem with it. Do I want the teacher reading it aloud? Nope. But I do want to retain the parenting choices I make regarding my child’s reading and maturity level. I don’t agree that a teacher should have read this book to a class of children this age. Many are sensitive and would be disturbed by it and a teacher should know that. But if a school says my child can only read a book at home and not during their quiet classroom silent reading time, they are stepping on my toes as a parent and I have a significant problem with that.

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  14. I hope this isn’t off-topic. I enjoyed Hunger Games and found the author’s treatment of homicidal violence to be appropriate to the narrative and sensitively handled. That wasn’t the case with another book that still haunts me. I couldn’t finish Mister Monday by Garth Nix because it was giving me nightmares (and i’m 62). I’ve seen Nix’s books recommended here, but if I’d encountered a book set in a grim subterranean place where there is no context for safety and an old man has his eyes gouged out with a corkscrew on the hour every hour, it would have poisoned fantasy for me forever.

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  15. I agree with teachers not reading it aloud. I agree with librarians not recommending it to young kids. I agree with parents discouraging their children from reading it. But I don’t agree with not allowing it in the classroom. To me, free reading time is free reading time. And if you want to spend recess or silent reading time reading something that is too scary for your classmates, then that should be your choice. Now if it had horribly violent pictures that could be disturbing to your seat mates – that would be a different thing. I could even get behind the teacher/administration sending a friendly note to parents giving them a heads-up that the book is really scary and warning them to be a bit thoughtful about whether their child was ready for it. But not outright forbidding students to bring it to school.

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  16. I teach gifted fourth and fifth grade students and I had passed on reading The Hunger Games personally because the premise of the book sounded dreadful to me. BUT then, several of my kids read it and started passing it around. Sigh. I try very hard to stay with them in their reading habits (note: I didn’t say ahead–they are voracious readers and staying ahead is impossible) and then I HAD to read it. I was concerned about the themes for this age. Some of them are quite sensitive and I was worried that it would be too much for them. We talked. Personally, it would never have been a read aloud choice. (I do believe the book is very well-written and thought provoking. I read and liked the whole series.) Professionally, I think book banning is abhorrent and counter-productive. I am SAD to hear Chestnut’s teacher made this choice for her class and equally sad to hear of Chestnut’s terror. I worry about our kids’ obsession with dystopian/apocalyptic themes. I do wish we could help them choose less frightening themes for a little while longer. Childhood is fleeting…

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  17. Ugh. My 4th grader just came home from school and said that her reading group might read Hunger Games next. She was worried because I had already told her that she can’t read it until she’s older. I’m with Chestnut — there are many, many excellent books that 4th graders can read. Books about kids murdering other kids? I think those can wait.
    Thank you for posting this, and making me feel like I’m not the only parent with objections. I was starting to wonder if I was the only one!

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