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Monday, June 18, 2012


Just another YA novel?

I was signing copies of Tupaia in Muir's wonderful bookstore in Gisborne, and got into conversation about books and bestsellers with the vivacious and knowledgeable manager.

I asked her if she sold many copies of that erotic mega-bestseller, Fifty Shades of Gray, and she laughed and said she thought Gisbornites were probably a little too conservative for such steamy stuff.  From there we got onto Young Adult fiction, via the Twilight books, which I found somewhat disturbing, particularly the fourth in the series.  Not only was the childbirth scene a recipe for future panic for young female readers, I said, but it trivialized the social responsibilities that should come with vast wealth.

"In that case," said she, "you must read The Hunger Games. It is very well written and has a compelling story, as well as a social message."

So I didn't hesitate to follow such sage advice: as soon as I reclaimed my new Kindle, I downloaded the book.  And she was right: it is a terrific read.

For the first time in years, I actually wished I was back in the classroom with a fourth form (year 10) class in front of me, because this book would not only enthrall the most restive of 14-year-olds, but there is material there for a bunch of lesson plans.

As we all know, Hunger Games is set in a dystopia near-future, where a handful of mega-powerful, mega-rich people rule the country called Panem.  The great unwashed majority live in 13 districts -- well, there used to be 13 districts, until District 13 rebelled against the extremely unfair system, and was reduced to ashes. 

Now, to remind the masses how vulnerable they are, the powerful in the reigning city, Capitol, stage an annual gladitorial contest.  Each of the 12 surviving districts chooses two adolescents by ballot, and these "tributes" are swept to the Capitol to be prepped for a really nasty reality show, which will be televised throughout Panem, and is compulsory viewing for the folks back home.

Once groomed, the tributes are dropped into an arena, under the understanding that only one walks out, all the rest having been killed by their fellow contestants.  The ensuing battle for survival is seen through the eyes of one of the tributes, Katniss, who is a gifted archer and adept at living off the land, but is otherwise both rebellious and scared out of her wits. And, unlike the incredibly privileged in Capitol, she has a strong sense of ethics.

Loosely based on the gladiator system in ancient Rome, it offers a wonderful lesson in history, seen through the eyes of one of the gladiators.  It also questions the huge and growing gap between the rich and the poor.  Suzanne Collins, the gifted writer, says she thought of the premise while surfing the internet, alternating between a reality show and footage of the invasion of Iraq.  The loss of her father in the Vietnam War also played a part, as did the saga of the Greek hero, Theseus.

The result is gripping, and immensely thought-provoking.  Highly recommended for adults as well as intelligent fourth formers. Ideally, it would lead to deep discussions about the family dining table.

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