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."
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.