(Mockingjay. Scholastic, 2010)
Enough is never enough. And just when you think it's enough, you need more. That's what I learned yesterday listening to a group of eighth-graders talk about Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games trilogy. My writing buddy and I, both of us quite older than the small group gathered around a long, wood desk in the back of Borders, took our seats 15 minutes into the discussion. Yeah, we got some funny looks from the kids seated at the table like, "what are these ladies doing here?" but after we all united in our dorky love of sci-fi/fantasy, a bond was formed. And I learned what these kids liked about the book. Three things: Blood, action and romance.
"Guts and gore, I like guts, blood and gore more than anything," one girl said.
"But the book has to have romance, too," two other girls stated.
"I don't really need any of that romance stuff," said the first girl, turning up her nose. "Just give me blood, guts and gore."
"I don't mind a little romance," said the one boy at the end of the table.
Well all right then. Duly noted. And The Hunger Games trilogy delivered all of these things. Blood, action and romance. Funnily enough, the trilogy is meant for the young-adult crowd (14-18 yrs.), but, of course, kids love reading above their age level. Kind of like with anything, if you think about it. A 12-year-old is desirous of her 16-year-old sister who's allowed to wear make-up and date boys. A 14-year-old boy is envious of his 18-year-old brother's license and shiny Mustang, etc. We all want to do something we're not legally allowed to do before we're allowed to do it. Anyone ever want to drink a beer before you turned 21? Be honest. That's desire. Well, the same goes for books. Kids want to read above their age.
But there's a lot of blood, guts and gore - as the first girl said she loved so much - in The Hunger Games series. The kids at Borders yesterday were clearly big sci-fi/fantasy fans, so they tend to like things like this because they can, I think anyway, compartmentalize the killing of people. That is to say, that because the books take place in the future, post-apocalyptic future, they can - and this is just my opinion - set aside, or accept, if you will, the murder, basically, of innocent children because it takes place in a world that does not really exist. For those of you who have not read the series, The Hunger Games takes place, as I've said, in post-apocalyptic America. A Capitol arises out of the ashes, as do 13 Districts who are forced to do the labor and produce goods for the people in the Capitol. When District 13 rebels, they are destroyed. After that, the Capitol reminds the remaining 12 Districts who is in charge and how vulnerable they all are by sending one boy and one girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to something called The Hunger Games. An arena, eliciting similarities to the Romans' Gladiator era, is constructed, and the 24 children are placed within its confines to a match with the goal to kill one another. The last one standing is the victor who is given a "cushy" life back home where most people live on the brink of starvation. Yeah, heavy. And filled with tension, which Donald Maass will tell you in The Fire in Fiction (Writer's Digest Books, 2009), is what makes a book tick.
A voice went off in my head listening to these kids talk. And believe me, I asked them lots of questions. The voice said, you'd better step it up with your book Trevelyn's Shimmer. You'd better make your main character sweat it out. Push her to the edge and then save her at the last minute. But then I think - is that selling out? My book is only for middle-grade readers, not YA. Would that be taking it too far? What is too far nowadays? Are we so over the top in this age that we have to see someone practically killed in order to get our attention? Think medieval torture devices. In The Hunger Games, the actual games themselves are filmed and the people in all of the Districts are forced to watch. Forced to watch their children die. While the people in the Capitol look at the games as a form of entertainment - a futuristic, reality video game.
"Do you guys think that some of our own reality t.v. shows of late have gone too far? Have showed things that are too violent?" asked the Borders employee MC-ing the discussion.
"I think some of the shows on t.v. like Survivor, where people are almost starving, sometimes goes too far," said one girl.
"Is Hunger Games any different from when gladiators were forced to fight to the death in an arena for others' entertainment?" asked the MC.
"But those were different times and they weren't children," answered one of the girls wearing a headband.
This got me thinking. Are we turning a corner? Is society bending back to its old ways when we watched people get killed for our own enjoyment? What about all of the video games out there where people are getting killed? Okay, they are just video games. But are the growing outbreaks of violence in schools somehow related? Does this desensitize us? It seems very likely. And how do we know that those gladiators back in ancient Greece weren't kids? People didn't live to the ripe old age that they do now. I bet they were only kids, at least for today's standards. They lived much harder lives then. People still do, in many parts of the world.
I have to admit that I fully enjoyed reading The Hunger Games trilogy. It's true. Blood, action and romance definitely drives a novel forward. A number of parallelisms from real life can be drawn. I'm no expert on anything. But the similarities are pretty clear. Propaganda and Vietnam. Nazi propaganda. Differences in class, race and discrimination. Get on the bandwagon and think like people in power tell you to think! That's essentially what takes place for a number of years during the course of the timeline in The Hunger Games books. The carefree people who live in the Capitol, who have everything easily accessible to them, are fed detestable lies about the poor people living in the 12 Districts. And likewise, the Districts are taught to sit and speak when they are commanded, beaten into submission, into believing that they have no choice other than to do what they are told.
But I'm getting a little off track. And I have not yet read the last book so I'm not sure how it all ends. I have heard, though, that there is lots of violence in the final installment. Lots of blood, guts and gore. So is that what it takes these days to sell a book? Is that what it takes to become a successful author? What are the three most famous/popular/media-happy series for kids/young-adults that you can think of which have been published in the last ten years? Here is my list:
1. Harry Potter
3. Hunger Games
That's my list. Yours might be different. Although, I think Harry Potter might be unanimous.
So, if you've read all of the series above, what do they have in common? Violence and fantasy? That's what I'm thinking. What else? Romance? Action?
Yes. This leads me back to what I wrote at the beginning of this really, definitely too long post....which hopefully you're still reading. Blood, action and romance. That seems to be what the human psyche is drawn to. Is that innate? Entertaining? Love and violence seem to go hand-in-hand, yes? And the violence can't really happen without the action. That's a given.
So other than my point that a novel seems to need to have blood, action and romance to capture the YA and younger audience. I advise newbie, and established writers alike, to get out there and attend seminars at your local bookstores to hear what kids are really saying. Granted, I was only with a small minority of the juvenile population yesterday, but the message was clear. Sometimes the guidelines/industry standards that writers are given to follow, are not always what kids want to read.