There's a lot to admire about Katniss Everdeen, the heroine of the literary smash and recent box office hit "The Hunger Games." She is focused, feisty and courageous, yet she retains enough humility and self doubt to make her real to her readers.
Her readers range in age from the pre-teen set to the parents of the pre-teen set.
This is a book that certainly could have gotten lost in the explosion of dystopian literature that has appeared on the young adult scene over the last few years, but there was something that made it resonate.
As a middle school teacher, anytime a book takes hold of readers I want to understand why. So even though I am not a fan of dystopian literature I followed the lead of my students and got acquainted with Katniss.
Possibly what I admire most about Katniss is the appeal she has for boys. It is a well known but little understood fact in educator circles that boys do not choose to read books with female protagonists. The reverse is not true, and so characters like Harry Potter and Percy Jackson (The Lightning Thief) enjoy a loyal following of both genders. But it is imperative that boys read about girls to whom they can relate and admire.
I asked my seventh grade male students why they liked The Hunger Games so much, and if it bothered them that Katniss was a girl. It was almost as though her gender was beside the point. I got some strange looks from the group- stranger then when I try to explain the nuances of the electoral college-before they lunged into a defense of Katniss.
"Well the book is fast-paced!" one student asserted. "There is constant suspense," another added. "There is violence!"
"Does it bother you that there is a love story?" I cautiously inquired, nervous that perhaps they had not noticed that aspect of the tale and my elucidation of this fact might stop their readership.
Again I was met with blank stares and a chorus of nos.
So maybe Suzanne Collins has cracked the code. Give a girl a weapon, plop her down in harms way and the boys will come a running even if she can't decide which man should own her affections.
But there is more to the Katniss mania then a gal who barely survives a world bent on destroying her. The Hunger Games empowers young adolescents to believe that humanity exists even in dire circumstances.
Katniss and twenty three other youngsters in a dystopian version of the United States are forced into an arena where they will literally fight to their deaths while the whole nation watches on TV.
Despite the fact that there can only be one victor, some contestants display compassion for their opponents. For instance, there is the friendship that develops between Rue, the youngest competitor, and Katniss. Rue easily could have stood by while Katniss met her demise, but instead helps her outwit their opponents and even nurses her back to health after a near fatal bee sting. Katniss returns the favor by allowing Rue to die with dignity.
Then of course there is the outright refusal of Katniss and Peeta, her male counterpart, to kill one another in the end. This is well received in the court of public opinion, but not with the government who needs a sole survivor to impress upon its constituents the danger of rebellion.
Each of these examples inspires young readers (and old!) that even in dire circumstances people will still hope and humanity can cause a tyranny to unravel.
Finally, Katniss has allowed us to have conversations with our students and our children about what it is to live in a democracy.
It is easy for the young reader to recognize the nation of Panem as a kind of post catastrophic United States, where once identifiable states have morphed into districts, each dependant on their natural resources for survival. It is easy for readers to understand that this is a nation where citizens no longer enjoy personal liberties like freedom of speech or the right to vote.
But the subtleties are what eludes them and these finer points have informed my Social Studies lessons. While teaching my seventh graders about the goals of the constitution, the document that allows them to live freely, I pointed to the world of Panem, the world in which Katniss resides.
The preamble to our constitution states "We the people of the United States..." It is clear that in our nation the government works for us, yet in The Hunger Games, the people work for the government with each district cultivating its natural resources and providing for the government. The result is a country where food is rationed and citizens live in fear.
So, yes, I am capitalizing on Katniss's appeal to such a wide audience. I get excited when a book becomes part of popular kid culture, because it means that it is speaking to kids and therefore kids are reading it. And then their parents read it, and generational gaps are bridged over mealtime conversation. And my students can make meaningful connections with the curriculum.
And the movie? Great! More kids read the book in anticipation of the movie, or in response to the movie. My own daughter finished the book just as the lights dimmed in the theatre.
And that is a good book!