By now you’ve been bombarded with the pop-culture phenomenon that is The Hunger Games. Following the likes of Harry Potter and Twilight, the young-adult trilogy is traveling a well-trodden path toward ubiquity. Three books turn into four movies (pending box office success, of course); the first, called simply The Hunger Games, comes out on March 23. Its young cast finds insta-stardom, their soon-to-be-familiar faces plastered on tabloid covers, themed products and an elaborate social-media marketing scheme. It’s enough to inspire a backlash.
But I discovered The Hunger Games (Suzanne Collins, Scholastic Press, 2008) before all that, back when the cultural-commercial phenomenon was just a plain, old, inert book. I noticed it on a co-worker’s desk, and it caught my eye because I’d just seen a lady cradling a copy in an elevator at the Cosmopolitan. What was this thing? When I picked up the book—which had an understated cover image of a golden bird—my colleague explained that she wasn’t into reading science fiction, but was making an exception for this book. Suddenly, I had to know what extraordinary novel would lead my friend to delve into that realm of unrepentant nerdiness.
The book’s back cover gave a description of some sort of annual gladiator-style games that two kids from every “district” must play in some sort of arena. Because the story was set in a post-apocalyptic future America called Panem, the games were naturally reality-televised. Seemed kinda weird, but intriguing enough.
I downloaded The Hunger Games to my Kindle that night. Never did my co-worker mention that the book was “young adult,” as in it had a 12-year-old reading level. And never did I notice, at least not until I was hooked. Call it one of those quirks of modern technology—by bypassing the bookstores and their categorized bookshelves, I didn’t enter the series with any preconceived notions of childishness. Nor did I have to bear the indignity of carrying around the tome, with its telltale cover. (When Harry Potter reached its zenith of popularity in the pre-e-reader days, the publisher released an adult edition with toned-down covers.) Now, I’m no literary elitist, at least not in practice. I read all the Harry Potters. And I enjoyed every single guilty pleasure of the delightfully pure, Mormon save-it-till-marriage propaganda otherwise known as Twilight. But there’s a difference between the act of reading and the admittance of reading. And when I was in polite company, I simply kept mum about my base pastime.
I started reading The Hunger Games in the departure lounge, waiting to head home for Thanksgiving. From Page 1, the book pulled me into its romantic vision of dystopia like a portkey from Harry Potter (remember, those magical objects that took you places when you touched them?). There’s this compelling first-person narrator, that of 16-year-old expert archer Katniss Everdeen, and she volunteers for the sure-death of the Hunger Games to save the life of her sister. There’s no magic and no glittering superhumans, just the righteous feeling of fighting for survival in a post-global-warming world. When the flight attendant asked me to turn off my book because we were taking off, I wanted to cry. I had to sit in suspense, nervously flipping through the mall-in-the-sky catalog, waiting waiting waiting until we reached cruising altitude so that I could find out what happened next to Katniss.
Ironically, I’d have a stronger connection to the books if I’d spent a little more time with them. It can often take months, or at least weeks, to get to know a novel’s characters. But with The Hunger Games trilogy, I burned through the story arc like a drug addict given a free supply. The main challenge was controlling my reading time so that my life didn’t fall apart while I was in the throes of addiction. The last book, Mockingjay, passed through my consciousness in a single day, a day that I was supposed to go Christmas shopping. (Sorry, gift recipients.)
Right around that time, I happened to meet a New York University creative writing professor in a bar. She spent an entire beer bemoaning the fact that her students loved Young Adult fiction more than literary reading material. I tried to counter with the don’t-knock-it-till-you’ve-tried-it approach, but she resisted. I surrendered my argument, because she had prestige on her side.
But now, from the relative safety of this page, I’m saying that all reading is good reading. There’s no shame in an adult reading tween fiction. Nobody was around telling Jane Austen the exact age segment of her readership. But if they were, her tales of polite young ladies seeking marriage would certainly be classified as the dreaded YA.
In the case of The Hunger Games, you don’t need the literary equivalent of truffle oil to fancy-up the product for grown-ups. You already have a worthy plate: a strong female protagonist (no passive sissy who falls in love with a vampire à la Twilight), the tackling of real-world issues (a critique of war, the mass-entertainment machine and of the growing gap between rich and poor) and good, old-fashioned swashbuckling excitement in a creative, new setting. What more could readers of any age want?