Suzanne Collins’s War Stories for Kids
by Susan Dominus
The New York Times
Back in 2009, the literary agent Rosemary Stimola sat down to read “Mockingjay,” the third, highly anticipated book in a wildly popular trilogy of young adult novels by Suzanne Collins. Stimola, who represents Collins, read eagerly until she came to one of the last chapters, in which a firebombing kills thousands of civilians caught in a revolutionary war, including one heartbreakingly innocent and beloved young character. The book was then a computer file, not yet the blockbuster it would become upon its release last August. Changes could still be made. Stimola picked up the phone and called Collins.
“No!” Stimola wailed. “Don’t do it.”
She was reacting as a reader, not a career adviser, but perhaps in the back of her mind she was imagining the emotions the plot twist might provoke in the book’s youthful fans: depression rather than inspiration, desolation rather than triumph. The capacity of young-adult literature for dark messaging has been expanding since the early ’70s, but this poignant loss seemed almost unbearable.
“Oh, but it has to be,” Collins told her. Stimola, paraphrasing, recalled the explanation Collins offered her over the phone: “This is not a fairy tale; it’s a war, and in war, there are tragic losses that must be mourned.”
Collins, a 48-year-old mother of two, spent much of her adult life writing for children’s television, dreaming up plot lines for shows like “Wow! Wow! Wubbzy!” a Nick Jr. cartoon aimed at preschoolers. But in the “Hunger Games” trilogy, she revealed an outsize imagination for suffering and brutality. The books juxtapose the futuristic fantasy of a gleaming, high-tech capital and early-industrial life in the 12 half-starved districts it controls. In a ritual known as the Reaping, two adolescents from each of these oppressed districts are selected at random to participate in the Hunger Games, an annual televised match in which children battle one another and mutated beasts to the death, like Roman gladiators in a glitzy reality-TV contest. The trilogy’s heroine, Katniss, 16 years old when the series begins, has the tough-girl angst of an S.E. Hinton teenager and is too focused on survival to spend much time on familiar Y.A. preoccupations like cliques and crushes. On the very first page, she stares at the family’s pet cat, recalling, matter-of-factly, her aborted attempt to “drown him in a bucket.” By the last book, she is leading a revolution.
You could predict that adolescents — who keep slasher films in business — would find the “Hunger Games” trilogy mesmerizing. More surprising is how many adults, bookstore owners report, buy the books for themselves or to read with their children. Collins has said that the premise for “The Hunger Games” came to her one evening when she was channel-surfing and flipped from a reality-television competition to footage from the war in Iraq. An overt critique of violence, the series makes warfare deeply personal, forcing readers to contemplate their own roles as desensitized voyeurs.
By the time “Mockingjay” appeared, “The Hunger Games” had become part of a kind of publishing holy trinity, taking its place alongside J.K. Rowling’s “Harry Potter ” series and Stephenie Meyer’s “Twilight.” When “Mockingjay” was released at midnight, some bookstores kept their doors open for those readers who could not wait until the break of day to discover the fate of their favorite characters. As soon as the hype of the last book died down, speculation about the film version of “The Hunger Games” (slated for release next March) began to build. The casting of Katniss — whom The Atlantic called “the most important female character in recent pop culture history”— inspired a frenzy of online commentary. Last month, when Lionsgate announced that Jennifer Lawrence (of “Winter’s Bone”) would play Katniss, so many opinionated fans lighted up the blogosphere with objections (too old! too blond!) that the film’s director, Gary Ross, gave an interview to Entertainment Weekly assuring them that Collins was herself committed to the choice.
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