Although I am not normally a reader of young adult fiction, I did recently pick up a copy of the first volume of Suzanne Collins’ dystopian sci-fi trilogy, The Hunger Games. I had been listening to a podcast of NPR’s Pop Culture Happy Hour, a show in which a group of snarky nerds chat and giggle about television and movies and such like, when one of the panelists, admitted that he didn’t like to read BOOKS. Indeed, he hadn’t read a BOOK since he really couldn’t recall when. And then, encouraged by the rest of the panel’s sham horror, he promised that he would in fact read a BOOK as soon as a Book worthy of him could be discovered. To this end, listeners were encouraged to email recommendations of books worthy of his attention, so that, from the mass, he might choose the one to honor with said attention.
Some weeks later, he announced the anointed title. It was not War and Peace. It was not The Great Gatsby. It was not even The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo. It was The Hunger Games. Now to my astonishment, never myself having heard of The Hunger Games, the rest of the panel burst out with their own enthusiastic endorsement of the selection. It was a compelling read. It was a wonderful book, an inspired choice. Since I consider myself a somewhat literate sort of fellow, I was at a loss as to how I could be so ignorant of a book so many found so wonderful. It was at that point that someone happened to mention the genre, to mention that said Hunger Games was an example of what we happily lump together as young adult fiction, and now I understood. Far from young adulthood myself, young adult fiction was something I had left behind decades and decades ago, in favor of what I happily lump together as old adult fiction.
Of course, I turned up my nose. Young adult fiction was for children; commentators on NPR — intellectuals, pseudo and otherwise — should be expected to read real books, adult books. Bad enough to confess you didn’t read, worse to decide when you finally agree to take book in hand that the book you take is one step past Horton and the Grinch. Meanwhile, the discussion of the book continued, and there was naught but praise. Everyone on the panel seemed to have read it and everyone loved it. To hear them talk, this was a modern masterpiece; young adult notwithstanding, it was a book for the ages.
I begin to waver. Had there not been books written for young adults that had managed to creep into the adult section? Had there not been books written for old adults that had managed to creep unto the young adult shelves? Snobbery will get you nowhere.
A day or so later, I’m off to the local library. The young adult section is upstairs with the children’s section. I have never been up there. I look through the shelves, try in vain to figure out how they have the books arranged, and of course can’t find the book. Some masterpiece, I think, the library doesn’t even have a copy. Just in case, I check with the librarian. After all, there is inter-library loan.
“Do you know a book called The Hunger–…
“It’s over there.” She points to a display table with not one, but three well thumbed copies. This is a library that doesn’t have three copies of the Bible.
I’m not going to write a review of the book. There is already an interesting review on Blogcritics well worth reading. The book is certainly well done. Its 16-year old heroine, Katniss Everdeen, through whose eyes we are told the story, is an appealing narrator. Set in the not too distant future, she describes a world gone awry, something of a cross between The Road and Wall-e. Her adventures as a contestant in an annual gladiatorial contest for teens keep you turning pages. There is even some social commentary of the lament for “what man has made of man” kind. The world it describes is not very complex. It is clear what its values are and what we are supposed to think about them. Katniss may not always be able to tell the good guys from the bad, but the reader doesn’t have any problem. The author isn’t very subtle about providing clues. This is a wonderful book — for young adults.
For the elders among us, you could do a lot worse. It is surely no worse than the stuff Dan Brown turns out, in fact it may well be quite a bit better. I guess sometimes it is the little children who will lead us, or the young adults at any rate.