I just finished reading Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games trilogy. It blew my mind. Totally and completely blew my mind. I'm a reader, and I'm skeptical of hugely popular young adult series for their manufactured mass appeal, the terrible norms they tend to perpetuate and the shoddy writing and editing that goes overlooked when time is money and the audience is waiting to find out which creepy, immortal jerk Bella will marry. Several friends had recommended The Hunger Games, but (alas) countless are the number of people I know who've loved Harry Potter, so it wasn't until I started seeing Suzanne Collins raved about on feminist blogs that I started to believe the series might be really good.
Um. It is. Really, really good. It broke my heart. Broke it in two, then into thirds, and slowly, surely, into a million pieces and... left it there. Few storytellers have the nerve to do that: to offer little or no redemption for the characters with whom they know you've fallen in love. As the series progressed, I found it harder and harder to believe that a grown woman wrote these stories, as I couldn't imagine her allowing such terrible fates to befall children, fictional or otherwise. And that led me to consider the real children who make up Collins' intended audience. Of course, the actual readership is much larger, more varied than the suggested reading level suggests, as it should be. In reading, however, in suffering every gory loss, detailed and mourned by poor Katniss Everdeen and in experiencing, by proxy, the horrors of battle, I appreciated -- on one hand -- the indictment of war, but found myself aghast at times. Could kids really handle this? I looked periodically at my own, as he slept and I tried to angle my Kindle's light away from his face. Of course not! How could he process this at twelve, at fifteen, even at Katniss' stated age -- seventeen -- when I was having a hard time dealing? When is anyone prepared for such a vivid, largely unforgiving picture of death and violence and need and desperation?
But as I thought, I considered the books I read in adolescence, even shortly before. I tried to remember any that had scarred me -- none had, so far as I can tell. It struck me that it's possible that our teenage years are the perfect time for these gut-wrenching stories that are somehow nuanced while beating us over the head with message. In order to get invested without falling into a depression, I thought; In order to feel for these characters without being distracted by your want to save them, you have to feel invincible. You have to be a kid.
I am always learning. Always surprised by the revelations I have now that I'm a parent, looking through the glass at the other side of childhood. I hope that when George is twelve, fifteen, seventeen, however old, I can trust his judgment. Give him the freedom to read, see, do what he can, because, as I'll tell him, if you wait until you're older -- until you have kids of your own -- your heart will be mush. You'll read books written for ninth graders while silently begging your snoring sixteen month old never to enlist in the military.