So, now that I’ve finished the “Hunger Games” trilogy…

I am very ambivalent.

A short while ago, I got a little bit shirty with certain columnists who preened about the intellectual merits of the literature they were reading and who looked down on grown-ups who read inappropriately juvenile fiction like “The Hunger Games.”  Turns out, one of my partners had just lent me the trilogy, and I had started reading them myself.  Needless to say, I’m not a great fan of being told by Joel Stein that I must be a moron if I’m reading books that are too young for me.  I’ll get started on “The Pale King” soon enough, thanks.

Anyhow, I would have finished them a while ago if various family members hadn’t kept stealing them to read first.  They are not difficult books to read, by any stretch.  Well… not difficult in the sense that Faulkner is difficult.  But maybe difficult in a different way.

Before I continue, I should insert the obligatory spoiler alert.  While I don’t plan to discuss any specific plot points, I will be referring to events that happen throughout the trilogy.  If you’ve not read them yet and wish to do so without foreknowledge, stop now.

I am not ambivalent because I think the books are not well-written.  While nobody should wonder why they didn’t get Pulitzer buzz, and the prose is on the utilitarian side, the writing is pretty good.  They’re certainly captivating and fast-paced.  After a while, they get a little bit predictable in that when you see that you’re on the last two pages of a chapter you can bet there will be some catastrophic reversal in the next few paragraphs.  But Suzanne Collins manages to keep the reversals interesting and surprising.

And as far as young adult fiction is concerned, I think there is much to recommend “The Hunger Games.”  It has themes that I think are unusual within the genre, and can help readers develop a more mature sense of the world.  The main character is both manipulative and manipulated.  Revolutionary overthrow of an evil and oppressive government does not magically make the world better.  Violence is not glamorized, and is treated with gravity, sorrow and remorse.  Katniss Everdeen is a realistic character in a very unrealistic setting.

But good Lord, those are some incredibly violent books.  From a strictly literary point of view, it does get a bit de trop at times.  (In particular, I think Collins goes a little overboard with the genetically modified “mutt” creatures at the end of the first and third books.  Rapacious, hissing lizard men may be a smidge on the baroque side?)  Putting those criticisms to the side, these are easily the most graphically violent books I have read in a long time.  People are beaten to death, cut into pieces, have their legs blown off, are publicly executed, have their tongues cut out, get their flesh melted off… et cetera.  And the tone of the books is unremittingly, inexorably bleak.

And here’s where I get ambivalent.  I am not entirely sure I think the books are appropriate for children.  High schoolers?  OK.  But my impression is that plenty of middle school-aged kids read them, too.  I know they’ve been out for a while, so it’s quite possible that there was more debate about who should be reading them and I just missed it.  But I really don’t think I’d let my son read them until he’s out of junior high.

On the other hand, that reaction may be informed largely by my own upbringing.  My parents were quite strict about what I was allowed to watch.  I didn’t see any R-rated movies until I turned 17, and even then I had to get specific permission each time.  (Given my temperament as a child, I wouldn’t have wanted to watch violent movies anyhow.)  When I ponder what ill outcome I’d be trying to prevent by keeping my kid from reading them too young, I’m not entirely sure.  It seems to conflict with some vague sense of innocence, which I’d want to preserve.  I’m not worried that it would transform him into a sociopath.  But I have qualms.

In any case, these are books that parents should read before giving them to their kids.  Full stop.  (That’s reason enough, Mr. Stein.)  Whether or not you think any given seventh grader can handle gruesome depictions of terrorism and murder, parents should know what their seventh grader is reading.  That’s the advice I give as a blanket statement anyway, but if your kid is a voracious reader then it can be hard to vet everything before they get their hands on it, at least if you do want to read grown-up type literature, too.  (I really am looking forward to “The Pale King” now, which seems as anti-“Hunger Games” as a book can get.)  But for a book as famously violent as these, parents have an obligation to know what’s in them before turning them over to their kids.

Now that I’ve said my piece, I am very interested in what others have to say.  If you’ve read the books, what do you think the appropriate age is for a young reader to start them?  Is it legitimate to worry about their effects on any child, if said child doesn’t seem disturbed by the content?

Russell Saunders

Russell Saunders is the ridiculously flimsy pseudonym of a pediatrician in New England. He has a husband, three sons, daughter, cat and dog, though not in that order. He enjoys reading, running and cooking. He can be contacted at blindeddoc using his Gmail account. Twitter types can follow him @russellsaunder1.


  1. My next door neighbor’s oldest daughter is in her first year of high school. Her “free reading” assignment was her choice of “The Hunger Games” or “The Diary of a Young Girl” by Anne Frank. Believing that Anne Frank would be “boring, ” she opted for the former. Naturally, all of the adults were scandalized. We believe the teacher was trying to address issues of courage and overcoming adversity. If that is right, was this an appropriate book to assign for a high school freshman?

    • It was assigned?!? I would stridently object to that, even if an alternative was offered.

      “The Hunger Games” is relentlessly, graphically violent. It is not a book that I think lends itself to class assignment, and should be given to kids to read at parents’ discretion.

      • A little shocked myself as well.

        Do you think she’ll offer up 50 Shades of Grey as the next class assignment option?

        • Now you know why when someone in California catches themselves in an error of grammar, math, or historical recall (as in, “Our first President? That was Benjamin Franklin, right?”) they correct themselves with the phrase, “Sorry. Public school.” and everyone shrugs and move on.

          • ….
            I’d hate you if I didn’t know that it’s partially true. Mostly because ~we~ don’t get to kick out those who can’t memorize that the first president was John Hanson…

            (and no I did not Google that..)

            (okay I did)

            (but at least I knew I didnt’ know and had to use google)

          • A friend of mine who is a public school teacher got “Kobe Bryant” as an answer to that question.

            On a test.

          • Usually you can guess what misunderstanding (or series of misunderstandings) led to that. This one is a stumper.

          • Maybe it was more a way to say “I’ve got no idea.”

  2. I argue in some of my philosophical work that engaging with fear and sadness and anger and even violence in a fictional setting has many benefits for kids (and adults, for that matter). In fact, I think we involved to be able to enjoy fictionalized versions of stuff we wouldn’t want to be true to have mental rehearsals of dealing with it. But I do think there are things that are simply above kids. I don’t know about a specific age. It depends on the kid, the book, the events described, the attitude of the author toward the events described, among other factors.

    My parents let me read whatever I wanted whenever I wanted. No lasting damage, but I think I spent more of my childhood severely terrified than absolutely necessary.

  3. I agree that if parents are concerned about their children reading violent books they might want to read The Hunger Games before letting their kids do so. However, in defense of Collins’ impressive trilogy, unlike the majority of movies that come out of Hollywood these days, including the recent record breaker The Avengers, Collins’ version of violence and heroism is anything but cartoonish. She realistically depicts how people respond to atrocity, just as I’ve tried to do in my own novels for young adults. Her characters, and mine, are deeply traumatized by what happens to them. You might ask why we write about violence at all, and that’s a fair question. My answer: Unfortunately we live in a violent world. A boy in junior high now could conceivably be fighting on the front lines in a war zone in five short years. That boy might have a more realistic idea of warfare if he reads about violence that has actual consequences for the hero, instead of the version of consequence-free heroics so often presented in blockbuster films that are clearly designed for his demographic.

    • Thanks so much for commenting, Amy.

      I should make it clear that I totally agree with you about the depiction of violence in the books. They absolutely do not glamorize it or romanticize it, but instead depict it as awful.

      And I agree with what Rose said above and you say, as well — I don’t object to fictional depictions of violence, even in literature or other media for children. I just wonder if the extremity of the violence in these novels, which are truly grisly, might make them ill-suited for children as young as have (apparently) been reading it. That said, society seems to be weathering the storm just fine, so my questions are sincere, and I’m perfectly willing to accept that perhaps my qualms are ill-founded.

      • I don’t know if I agree that this ~is~ the kind of thing a middle schooler needs to start thinking about. Okay, yes I did read DragonLance when I was in 7th grade. Yes it had some pretty violent parts. Of course I tended to glaze over them because I was always more into the big plot than the particulars of how a given character got killed off… Disclaimer done.

        But a typical 12 year old shouldn’t be in that violent of a life. He shouldn’t be facing death or the possibility of death with any particular need. What’s going on that “death is something they need to learn about” at that age? He’s 12. Why are we as a society so anxious to push our kids to grow up and deal with adult issues? As to the being ready to be at war, at the age of 12 he’s at least 6 years from being handed a gun. And that’s if the ~wants~ to join the military and ~wants~ to be in combat. I hardly call that a sure thing, coupled with the fact that we’re already scaling back operations in those theaters and every suggestion of a draft is destroyed almost as soon as it’s suggested.

        I respect that there’s a need for kids to deal with adult stuff eventually. I also respect that every author has both a story tell and a reason for telling it. I just don’t agree that if one media offers glamorized violence before kids are ready that the solution is to give them real violence also when they’re still not ready.

  4. I was raised on horror movies, so I have a hard time objecting to kids seeing all that much violence in general.

    That said, I still remember what a crazy feeling it was when I read the first Dragonlance book in sixth grade and one of the main characters got horrifically destroyed by dragon fire. Something about reading the kind of thing I’d seen a million times made it so much worse. I have no idea why.

    • I am the exact opposite. I can read just about anything, no matter how graphic, and be fine.

      In fact, I think I went through a pretty extensive Stephen King phase in early high school… maybe even junior high? Which makes me even more convinced that my concerns as stated above are simply a sign of encroaching conservatism as I age, rather than evidence of a problem with the books.

      But anyhow, I can read much more graphic stuff than I watch. I’ve already said enough about how much I hate horror flicks.

  5. I haven’t read the series, and don’t have any plans to do so. However, I will say that my youngest is devouring them. My oldest is more compelled to read books that might make many parents blanch, like Youth In Revolt.

    What this says about my parenting skills, I’ll let you know in 20 years.

    • Well, you know your kids and I don’t, so it would be presumptuous beyond words for me to tell you how you should be raising them. If your youngest is the psychologically resilient type and you don’t have qualms about him (a boy?) reading about people getting their heads ripped off by gigantic mutant lizard men, then it’s not my place to second guess that. (I say that with zero sarcasm and the utmost sincerity.) As has been stated already by other commenters, the violence is treated with genuine gravity. It’s not torture porn.

      And I feel reasonably confident in guessing that you’re a really swell parent.

      • I think my youngest is the kind that, when reading about people getting their heads ripped off by gigantic mutant lizard men, would think “awesome!” At least now, anyway. A few years ago, maybe not… but probably.

        Now my oldest probably wouldn’t cop to it, but it might bug him. When he was little and I took him to go see Shrek, he wanted to leave the very first scene you saw the dragon. He’s the one that loved Youth In Revolt, which actually makes me potentially more nervous than Hunger Games, since the protagonist gets involved in crimes that teens might actually get caught up in. (As opposed to getting on the wrong side of a mutant lizard.)

        It’s the same way with movies. My youngest favorites are unrealistic fight-y movies with swords or things that blow up, like Beowulf and the Star Wars movies. My oldest prefers indie movies about young outsiders like Juno, 500 Days of Summer and Napoleon Dynamite. Back in ’07, he might have been the only 11 year old boy in the country who, when asked if he wanted to go see Spiderman 3 or Transformers, asked to skip them and be taken to see Juno instead.

  6. I finished the books a month or two ago. I enjoyed them well enough, though I had some of the same thoughts as you regarding the kids they are marketed to and the relentless violence. I consider it a sign that I am getting old as much as anything else.

    • I consider it a sign that I am getting old as much as anything else.

      I fear the same thing, myself. Plus these kids keep stepping on my goddam lawn!

      • I’ve thought that too but the math nerd in me tries to quantify these things and really… there is movement. It’s not ~just~ perception.

        It is true that every generation looks at the next and marvels at how easy they seem to have it. The problem is that sometimes there really is a culture shift. Songs may have more sexual overtones to them and they may be consumed at younger ages. Think of the challenges for a 14 year old in 1950 to get her hands on a 45 compared to how hard a similar 14 year old today has of getting that single. One had to get the money, get to the store, get the record and get home. Today she just has to get Daddy’s iTunes password and wait for the download to finish.

        • “Today she just has to get Daddy’s iTunes password and wait for the download to finish.”

          Not even that. Just go to YouTube and listen for free.

  7. I know I’m always going on about Hume. But Hume actually addressed the differences in preferences in genre by age. Not a new discussion.

    When I was a kid I was much more tolerant of violence and sadness than I am now. I was much less tolerant of fear (horror movies are now almost always faintly ridiculous).

  8. Okay I haven’t read the books. I’ve seen the movie and I’ve seen the book appear on all manner of school reading lists down through middle school. Mostly because the book is labeled “Young Adult” and that is an age range that starts between 6th and 8th grade and works its way up through college reading level.

    Also my totally unscientific study of book classification has found (mostly talking to reviewers and authors) that “Young Adult” isn’t about content, it’s about the difficulty of the material to read. Since books like the Hunger Games don’t really stretch too far on the read-ability factor, and they star a teenager, they get marketed as “young adult” without too much thought as to the content.

    And this really burned my bacon. In fact one of my pet peeves has been that when I lament seeing someone who is, say, a highschool freshmen totally lost in Twilight, I’ll hear back “At Least They’re Reading”. Uh… is that the justification for it all? Just that they read? Doesn’t the content matter at all?

    Just based on the action in the movie I would be concerned seeing that book in a middle school. It’s not just the graphic nature of it (again from what I’ve been told) but the nature of having kids execute kids that concerns me. Yeah I used to play at all kinds of stuff when I was in middle school but that’s still not, to me, the same.

    I’m not doing a good job of articulating my thoughts here, I fear. But if you wanna peek I did comment on these last month:
    Crying for Characters:
    At Least They’re Reading:
    Movie Review:
    General Rant about a Rant about the woman playing Katniss looking sexy:

    Yes.. I’ve gotten a LOT of mileage outta the Hunger Games….

    • “At Least They’re Reading”

      Exactly. If you see a kid who eats nothing but chicken nuggets and french fries, three meals a day, do you say “at least he’s eating“?

      • In the case of Twilight, it’s more like a kid who eats nothing but knives and glass, but your point is otherwise excellent.

        • You’re right, a diet of nothing but chicken nuggets and french fries is okay.

          Er, wait, was that your argument? I’m confused.

          • The difference between eating and reading is that you have to do the former while you can avoid the latter entirely.

            So when we say “at least they’re reading” we mean “they may be reading crap, but they’re reading and not watching TV.”

            When we’re looking at a kid on nuggets and fries, the alternative isn’t that they are doing something other than eating. The fact of eating something is assumed. The fact of reading anything outside of school can’t be assumed, because it’s often not done.

          • >So when we say “at least they’re reading” we mean “they may be reading crap, but they’re reading and not watching TV.”

            I must post on this! But I’m not allowed to do a post until I do a draft of this paper I’m working on (which is actually about emotional responses to fiction).

          • I actually think that reading is overrated. But some reading is good. Some reading is definitely good, even if you’re not reading high fiction. As ridiculous as it might sound, I think comic books actually helped me along (introducing me to words, getting me used to sitting down with something printed).

          • Rose: Sounds awesome.

            Also yeah… there is a certain cultural norm that says “all books is good/ all TV is teh bad”. WHich is dangerous considering how bad some books are….

            Or as I often quip, any boy treats my little Kaylee the way Edward treats Bella he’s going to find himself dead the second he steps foot on my private property and I will post warnings that trespassers will be shot.

          • So a diet of nothing but chicken nuggets and french fries is okay?

            What I want you to do is justify the attitude that reading anything at all is so much better than not reading that the content is immaterial. Which is indeed saying “chicken nuggets and fries is okay because eating is better than not eating”.

          • Duck, even reading junk bolsters reading skills. Maybe not the analytical side, but the part about paragraph after paragraph and chapter after chapter. Reading is a skill above and beyond can/cannot. It is something to be cultivated and even the novelization of Bill & Ted’s Bogus Journey provides that in some amount. Moreso than watching TV.

            This is an odd role for me to be playing in the discussion, given how I’m the guy who usually says reading is overrated (and TV underrated) but intelligent society. But reading – even junk – matters. I almost never did when I was young and suffered for it.

          • Duck-

            Reading crap is better than reading nothing if reading nothing means doing nothing.

            So, if the options are read crap or sit there and stare at the wall, the former is likely better. If the options are read crap or go outside and play or listen to a good CD or watch a great movie, reading crap likely comes in a distant fourth.

            Food isn’t really a good analogy because you eventually HAVE to eat.

          • Kazzy, disagree to an extent. I listened to a log of good CDs, watched some good TV, and did a lot of worthwhile things. But some of that time would have been better devoted to reading. Even reading crap. That’s my perspective anyway. I can agree, though, with the notion that reading crap does produce diminishing returns at some point. There is an argument for balance here. But too much reading of crap is not high on my list of concerns (possibly skewed by my own experiences).

          • Will-

            Good point. I was speaking about a situation in isolation. The broader context does indeed matter.
            If all we know is that someone spent one hour doing one of those things, we likely wouldn’t advise reading crap.
            If we find out that they’ve spent most of the past year listening to good CDs and watching great shows and haven’t picked up a book in that time, reading, even crap reading, is probably the right call.

            You’re always good for injecting a bit of nuance, aren’t ya? 🙂

    • “Young Adult” is purely a marketing category. The book business is about selling books. Period.

      Since books like the Hunger Games don’t really stretch too far on the read-ability factor, and they star a teenager, they get marketed as “young adult” without too much thought as to the content.


  9. To the best of my knowledge, there was no prior vetting of anything I read as a child. I had free roam of the parents’ library, as well as anything I could find at the public library or buy with my own funds from wherever.

    Now, you’re talking about someone who read prodigiously as a youth.

    My available money, such as it was, was spent at my discretion, and a goodly chunk of it went to independent comic books from grade 4 to 8. Some of that would likely have raised an eyebrow. Then again, there are *bare breasts* in the Monster Manual, and my father (who has issues with pornography of any sort) undoubtedly knew about it and didn’t say anything.

    I remember reading this version of Grimm’s Fairy Tales, sometime early in third grade.

    People get torn to pieces by animals, burned at the stake, roasted into ashes in an oven, beheaded, stoned to death, consumed in a pit of vipers and noxious beasts, … in a lot of cases, the *good guys* go seriously Old Testament on the villains in the end. After reading The Hunger Games, I started looking through the older versions of these fairly tales and determined that really, I’d been reading things that were equivalently violent (if not more so) many years younger than the average audience member of The Hunger Games.

    Not to mention The Good Book. Dang.

    Of course, you all have some inkling as to how I’ve turned out, so there’s *that* counterargument.

    I don’t think it’s a bad idea to keep an eye on what your kids are reading, if only because there’s lots of fruitful conversations to be had, there.

    • I don’t think it’s a bad idea to keep an eye on what your kids are reading, if only because there’s lots of fruitful conversations to be had, there.

      I think that’s the crux of it. In the end, I would trust any given parent to make the appropriate decision for their child. But I think it’s important to be able to discuss what they’ve read, at least when it’s as potentially disturbing as what’s in these books.

  10. I remember “All Quiet On The Western Front” being pretty graphic, and I think they hit us with that around seventh grade.

    • So’s Lord of the Flies which we read in 8th grade.

      But it’s HOW the graphic nature is handled that I think makes all the difference. In Lord of the Flies when they kill Piggy that’s a Big Deal ™. It’s not just another death in a few dozen but it’s a point where the boys become true beasts.

      Contrast that with the way other modern fictions (film and book) are handling it…

  11. I read the books with my son (14) not too long ago. Strangely, I wasn’t disturbed by the violence. It’s not gratuitous, and it’s not all that graphic compared to some of the other stuff I’ve read.

    I liked the first book OK for what it is, and my son really liked it. I thought the second one wasn’t as good as the first, and the third was pretty damn bad; my son liked the second one the most, and thought the third one sucked. The writing itself was fine, but the characters only seemed to go so far, and the story felt more and more rushed and forced as the series went on.

    I also thought they were really, really predictable — I’d guessed a lot of the major plot twists really early in each book (and some from the sequels in the first book). I find that exceptionally annoying in books, for some reason, but actually like it in movies in television — maybe it’s something about the immediacy of the suspense in TV or movies, because it does drive me a bit batty, so I like knowing what’s going to happen.

      • This flew me into a rage. Seriously. I audibly cursed when it took that particular twist. I would have been much, much more interesting seeing things from a Mentor’s point of view and being introduced to a new couple of tributes and have been a part of what was going on behind the scenes.

      • Other than the fact that I figured out they were going to do that pretty early, it didn’t bother me so much. The third book’s “let’s turn the whole city into an arena” nonsense really irked me, though.

        • It is an irritating conceit, and one that makes very little sense if you think about it for long. If you have, say, a golden beam that freezes people in place and melts their flesh off, why just sprinkle them here and there? Why aren’t those your primary defensive tool? Why also the random bombs, tracker jacker pods, waves of toxic oil, etc.? (See OP re: excessively elaborate means of dispatching people in the last book.) It seems an awfully haphazard way of designing a defensive perimeter.

          • Exactly! I mean, it works as a means of instilling terror, but not as a means of combatting an organized armed force.

          • This was, I think, an attempt to allegorize the current IED warfare methodology in Iraq and Afghanistan.

          • It was?

            If so, to my reading it was ineffectively opaque. Further, I could see it having the opposite effect. What could make boring old bombs sound less scary better than flesh-melting death rays or streets that open up into reeking pits filled with unseen monsters? Allegory fail.

    • I suppose I liked the way they handled the notion of the Quarter Quell (the name of which I did find grating), and also the way they altered the arena from one Games to the next.

      • (the name of which I did find grating),

        Worse than Quacker Snackers? (or whatever the hell they were called.) I saw the film with my son, and the worst thing about it (besides the total predictability) is how bad the author is at naming things. Quite a contrast to Rowling, who’s brilliant at it.

        • I dunno. I had trouble with some of the faux Latin names she used for her spells.

          And yes, I found Quarter Quell even more irritating than tracker jackers, though maybe not as annoying as “muttations.”

    • Also, I remember reading Stephen King’s The Gunslinger when I was about my son’s age. Now that is graphically violent. It makes this seem pretty tame.

  12. The Tom Corbett books (whence “space awesome”) date back to the 50s. They stood out to me as a kid, because people really got hurt badly, even killed (though that was always offstage.) The main weapon used was the “paralo-ray gun”, which, as you’d expect, was a gun that shot a ray that paralyzed people. The good guys used it to immobilize someone so they could apprehend him, but the bad guys would often use it and then kick the crap out of the victim. Very different from Tom Swift or any of the other young adult SF I read, where nothing seriously bad ever happened.

    • Except for the first book, where the bad guys all go insane when they’re told that they’re going to die from radiation-induced cancer.

  13. The more I read people’s various different beefs with the books, the more I begin to think they’re not as good when I look back on them as they seemed when in the midst of reading them.

    • First impressions aren’t meaningless. They are, if nothing else, very entertaining. I think the first one is legitimately good, even if my opinion of the other two is less favorable.

    • I was really, really into “Galaxy Rangers” the first time I watched it as a kid.

      I got the series on DVD a year or so ago. This was a mistake.

      • True of a lot of TV. I used to watch Thirtysomething every week and was really pleased when Netflix licensed it. I literally could not make it through an episode.

  14. Is this really anything new though?

    50 years ago the popular “young adult” stuff was probably things like CS Forester’s Horatio Hornblower books, and those are also extraordinarily graphically violent. (And of course Forester also wrote the wonderfully titled Death to the French)

  15. Personally I don’t feel THE HUNGER GAMES trilogy is too violent. Yet, there is violence, but Collins doesn’t spend paragraphs discussing each and ever character killed in the series. My 11-year old granddaughter won’t go near a horror movie (I constantly tease her about whether she wants to go see “The Last House on the Left” or “The Cabin in the Woods.”) She is intelligent enough to know she is not interested at all in films that will give her nightmares. By the same token she read all three books in The Hunger Games series in three weeks. She wasn’t at all disturbed by the violence. She didn’t have nightmares. She finished the series and then went onto another series. Kids aren’t fools. If a book is boring or has gratuitous violence that scares them they will put the book down and pick up another. I agree parents should read and discuss books their children read, but if a middle-school reader enjoys The Hunger Games, shame on anyone who refuses to let he/she read the series.

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