Tag Archives: Hunger Games

The Boy I Want to Be

When the first Hunger Games movie came out, parents took their children, schools arranged field trips, and in general it was deemed important to take kids to go watch other kids kill each other. I’m sure there was some rational point, but I also heard reports of children being severely traumatized. Okay, where am I going with this? Please, not another rant. Not so much. More a question. See, not all kids were traumatized; most were thrilled, entertained, excited, and one young girl was heard coming out of the theater exclaiming, “I wish I could live in the Hunger Games!” Seriously? Why? What was it about that world that made her want to be a part of it?

She was not alone, and since then, Hunger Games themed summer camps have sprung up, giving kids a chance to hunt each other to (presumably simulated) death. What fun! What fun? What? Fun? It’s a given that I don’t get it. Maybe that’s why I continue to be a failed author, while the writers of dark, violent torture-festivals for kids see runaway success.

Okay, presumably the appeal of these books is the characters. Readers can “relate” to these plucky heroines standing up in the face of unrelenting horror and despair. I can see how that’s admirable. But who would want to actually be the characters? To actually go through their experiences?

The appeal of the Harry Potter books, especially the early ones, was obvious. What kid didn’t want to be whisked away to a magical school and discover his true greatness? Even if it meant standing up to ultimate evil, the journey was exciting. And, dare I say, fun. At least, it was in the early books. As the series progressed and the leads got older, the books got darker. This, I suppose, was to reflect that, as you mature, things become more serious, and the stakes rise. The Potter series was remarkable as being possibly the best example of the character growing up with the readers. The early books were very definitely middle grade, while the last ones were squarely “young adult.”

But that’s troubling to me. The implication there is that books for younger readers can be fun, whereas books for older teens should be serious, dark and traumatic. This may be a contributor to my continued failure to find representation for my book. More than one person has told me my book sounds middle grade. Seriously? There’s sex in it. And heady science. Well, I’ve been told, I should probably tone that down.

Great. To succeed as a “young adult” book, it can’t be fun. That’s frankly, bullshit. Why can’t there be fun books for older teens, and even genuine young adults? I’d much rather read that than a book where people are being barbarically killed on every page, and I have to keep stopping because my shuddering makes it hard to hold the book still. Am I alone in that?

What I really don’t understand is the writers of these dark books. What draws them to write? I know what draws me with my book. I love my characters. I’m sure these writers love theirs too, sometimes inordinately so. But my love for my characters drives me to write situations that they will like. I couldn’t wait for my romantic couple to get together. Every time something good happens, it’s a thrill for me, and I’m so proud that I created it. Compare that to Suzanne Collins’ experience. She said it was a very emotionally painful experience to write about children being killed. So then, why did she? Maybe that was her conscience trying to tell her to write something else.

I’m not saying my story is sweetness and light, but the upbeat easily outweighs the down. The light vanquishes the dark. I can’t say this is true of a lot of the popular works of today. Which makes it hard for me to see the appeal.

See, I don’t just love my characters. I want to be them. I want to be my male lead. I want to feel the unconditional love he has from his sisters, and the love he returns to them. A want to hold his little sister in my arms. I want to feel the thrill of his growing relationship with the strong girl who’s been drawn into his family. I want all of that. Did Collins want to experience Katniss’ horrific loss of her sister, or the crushing betrayal by her presumed allies? Did Veronica Roth want to experience the horrible mental torture inflicted on the characters in Divergent? Seriously, who would? The characters come out of these experiences scarred and broken. Is that what readers relate to?

My book isn’t scarring. My characters have adventure. They face dangers, true. Serious risk that forces them to grow and learn and find inner strength they didn’t know they have. But mostly the adventure is fun, full of the thrill of discovery. I’m writing that, because that’s what I want. I want a mysterious stranger to whisk me away to an exotic world, along with my beloved family. I want to join with them in finding my place in a larger universe. I want to be forever amazed by new discoveries. So that’s what’s in my book. And at the end, I make two things clear: even more amazing adventures await them, and they will face them together. As Nick tells his sisters: “We’re family. If we stay together, we can do anything.” I want to feel like that. Which is why I want so badly for my book to be published.

I don’t want to come out of a book feeling depressed and bitter. I want to feel exhilarated. I bet others want to feel that way too, the same way people wanted to feel like Harry Potter. But I haven’t found anything written lately that accomplishes that, which is why I’ve pretty much given up reading in the “young adult” genre.” Really, who wants to feel like Katniss or Tris? The authors? They created these worlds, these soul-crushing situations. I don’t think I’ll ever understand why.

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The Great Cookie Panic

It’s always interesting when a confluence of unrelated events creates a coherent picture.  This has just recently happened, beginning with my having run across a Publishers’ Weekly article from last fall that discussed then-current trends in teen fiction and had a number of agents weighing in on the subject.  Much of what the agents said was contradictory, and ended up coming down to, “We never really know what will succeed and what won’t.”

Much was said about how glutted the teen market has become, and how books that were published even five years ago wouldn’t make today.  The picture being painted was a rather discouraging one, not just for famous-pessimist me, but for a lot of would-be authors.  But near the end, the agents got a chance to express what they would really like to see in their inboxes.  They all made the usual sounds about wanting to see something different, unique, daring, etc.  Something that surprises them and knocks them over.  Uh huh.  I must say how gratified I was when a number of people in the comments section, including authors, educators and librarians, basically called bullshit.

The fact is, as I have said more than once, agents might say they want to see something “different,” but it’s not what they actually take on.  One key statement, the most honest line in the whole thing, came from an agent who admitted how it really works: “It’s always going to be easier to sell a high-concept idea because it’s easier for publishers to sell a high-concept story to readers. There’s a real challenge when you can’t describe a story in one sentence.”

Yep.  So much for the complex, unusual things they claim they want.  They will continue to pick up simplistic action yarns because they are easy to sell to publishers.  And film studios.  This was confirmed to me just this weekend, by a review I read of some new teen thing called “Panic,” which also put the lie to the claim that dark dystopia is on the way out.  Essentially, the premise is of some obscure high school where the students play some sort of ritualized game of fear, friendship, betrayal, etc.  Basically Hunger Games lite.  Or, let’s be honest, Battle Royale lite. The book is only just out, and has already been optioned for a movie.  Apparently there was a “bidding war” before it was even released.  No longer do they wait to see if a book is a success.  Now the agents are shopping it to film studios right alongside publishers.

The worst part, of course, is the kind of book it takes to have this sort of unwarranted success.  High concept, defined in one sentence.  Dark, violent, all that.  More stories about children inflicting horror on each other for the amusement of readers and theater-goers.  How did we become a society with such hatred of children that our mass entertainments are filled with them killing each other?

To be fair, I understand Suzanne Collins’ motivation for writing Hunger Games, which had nothing to do with an alleged mash-up of Survivor and Gulf War coverage, and everything to do with her working out having spent a decade at Nickelodeon, dealing with arrogant, ill-behaved child TV stars.  No wonder she had fantasies of them being killed on TV for the entertainment of rich people such as herself.

But that doesn’t explain the fascination with child violence that drives the rest of society.  And you are probably thinking it’s not an indication of hatred of children, that I am overstating the issue.  Don’t be so sure.  See, the next eye-opener that came to my attention was something that hit me very close to home.  I am currently enjoying my annual binge on those addictive substances with the deceptively innocent name, “Girl Scout Cookies.”  Those little marketing geniuses have us.  One enterprising little girl in Colorado, who gets my vote for the Nobel Prize in Economics, set up her little table in front of a marijuana dispensary.  She probably sold out in the first hour.

But apparently all is not well for the girls.  It seems there is an attempt to lead a boycott of Girl Scout Cookies due to a perceived link between GSA and Planned Parenthood.  Anti-abortion activists say it’s the GSA promoting “abortion on demand for young girls,” but in fact all it is is a program that emphasizes the accomplishments of women, including in the fields of health and sexuality.

And there’s the real fear.  People on various right-wing websites are decrying the idea of promoting “fact-based sex education” to girls.  It’s not “wholesome,” whatever that means.  What we see is a very vocal arm of society that is as fearful of sexuality as they aren’t when it comes to violence.  They are horrified that young people, especially girls, might have the means to make healthy decisions about their bodies and their sexuality.  And if girls can make their own decisions about sex, what’s next, deciding they don’t have to have my dinner on the table when I get home?  Oh the humanity!  And that mindset is every bit as damaging as all the violent media kids are saturated with.

That’s one of the reasons I am so frustrated at having met no success with my book.  I have very body-positive and sex-positive messages in it, messages I think entirely suitable for teens.  But I suspect if I ever do find an agent, all that stuff would be the first thing she’d want cut.  We can’t be telling kids that sex is okay, even fun.  The only way it seems to be permitted in teen books is if it’s traumatic.  I recently suffered through the first book in the Graceling series, and was subjected to a sex scene that not only was completely unnecesary to the story, but was so unpleasant, so awkwardly presented, it made Fifty Shades sound like D. H. Lawrence in comparison and made me wonder if the young author had even had sex, or was just basing it on stories she heard in the girl’s restroom at high school.  I’m not the only person whose sex drive was shut down from reading it.  But that gets a pass.   I guess to try and scare the kids away from having sex or something.  Not that that will stop them.

But the damage caused is real.  And so we deluge children with fear and hate and violence and despair, feeding the darkness rather than leading them to enlightenment and hope.  How did we get here?  One possible answer lies in the final element that has come to my attention.

A recent Pew study has found that the so-called “millennial” generation (with an approximate age range of 18-33) are not turning out to be the great community builders people thought they would be, but are instead even more self-absorbed than their Baby Boomer parents were (and that’s quite an accomplishment).  They are educated but largely unaccomplished, having lived highly structured, sheltered lives, where zero-tolerance polices on aspirin are the norm, and distrusting authority is an abstract mantra.  They are now filling a world that expects them to take an active role, and they don’t want it.  They aren’t prepared for it.  They make a lot of noise about issues, but it’s accompanied by very little action.

Is it any coincidence that the writers and promoters and publishers of violent, sex-negative, child-hating “teen” books are almost all right in the middle of the millennial demographic?  As are many of the “adult” readers of these books.  It makes sense.  It’s a generation less-prepared for responsibility than any before.  And more fearful of it.  Obviously there are exceptions, and some of my closest friends fall in this age range.  I have some highly motivated students, but they, too, are fearful of a world where the traditional certainties no longer apply.  They are the first generation in history that cannot reasonably expect to achieve a higher standard of living than their parents’, for whom still living “at home” in your twenties and even later is no stigma, but often the only practical choice.  I don’t envy them.

Many in this demographic are postponing or avoiding traditional institutions like marriage and family in record numbers.  This is not in and of itself bad, and I made the choice to not have children myself years ago.  But the scope in this case is indicative.  These are people who do not want the immense responsibility of family and children, and some of them who took it on anyway (possibly not by choice, thanks to inadequate sex education) fell apart when they discovered what’s really involved.  They do not want the responsibility the real world demands when the worlds presented in books and movies and video games are so much easier to grasp.  Unlike a best-selling teen book, life cannot be described in one sentence, so they want no part of it.  They escape a world they aren’t ready for by creating alternates where the social order they distrust and fear has collapsed, where life is cheap, and where they can lead armies and save the dreamy boy without having to worry about paying a mortgage and buying diapers.

So what’s my solution?  I don’t have one.  I’d say reject the darkness and read books full of fun and optimism, like mine.  But they don’t get published.  Okay then, have some Girl Scout Cookies.  Guaranteed to make anyone feel better.  But you’d better hurry before they’re banned for promoting sex.

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Triumph of the Spirit

The Winter Olympics are wrapping up, although I still have a fair amount of it on the dvr to watch. I’ll miss it when it’s ended. I’ve noted elsewhere that I especially enjoy the figure skating events. This year, for the first time, thanks to the miracle of cable, I have been able to watch all the skaters, instead of being stuck with the US network coverage, where they only show the medalists and the other Americans and select Canadians. Getting to see all of it has had an unexpected impact on me.

People talk about how media packages the coverage to artificially create “drama.” There’s truth to that. Certainly the “rivalry” between the American and Canadian ice dancers was overhyped, but not to the point of diminishing their beautiful performances. But when you get to see everything, you discover there’s already plenty of drama. As the expression goes, you couldn’t write this stuff.

Just for starters, there was Evgeni Plushenko’s sudden withdrawal just seconds before he was to skate, which sent the host country reeling. Shortly after that, Jeremy Abbot had a devastating fall and crashed into the boards, lying there several agonizing seconds before pulling himself up and skating the rest of his program flawlessly. Gold medal contender Mao Asada had a disastrous short program, leaving her in 16th place and conclusively out of medal contention, yet she came back in the long program to skate one of the best routines of the night.

The eventual gold medalist, 17-year-old Adelina Sotnikova, was clearly driven by frustration at all the attention being paid to her 15-year-old teammate, Yulia Lipnitskaya, and burned up the ice with her skating to defeat the unbeatable Kim Yu-na, while Yulia, facing the pressure of the Olympics and having spent two weeks at the center of a media frenzy, fell in both her routines. The frustration and disappointment on her usually implacable face reminded us that she was, to a great extent, still just a child. (In the interest of full disclosure, I will admit now that at no time did I hear anyone refer to a “battle of the 15-year-olds,” as I had predicted. I’m glad I was wrong.)

All these stories are well known, well-covered. Indeed, the drama goes on, and many people are now apparently deeply engaged in the perennial Olympic event called “looking for conspiracy behind the medal results.”

But there were other stories as well. So I want to talk about Isadora Williams. isadora1 You’ve probably never heard of her, and likely never will. She was one of the names you see briefly when they show how the stars are faring in the overall rankings. You don’t see them skate, and perhaps don’t think about them much. But they’re there, too. Isadora represented Brazil, although she actually lives in the United States and has dual citizenship. This is not uncommon. Lesser skaters who have little chance of making it to international competition when their home country has a strong, deep skating program, as in the US, will take advantage of dual citizenship to represent a country that otherwise may not even have an entrant in the World Championships or the Olympics. Thus we saw American skaters representing Slovakia, Estonia and Australia. Isadora was Brazil’s first ever Olympic skater.

She finished last.

She wasn’t bad. She didn’t fall. But she missed a number of key elements and her skating lacked energy. Only just turned 18, her career has not been especially distinguished, and she rarely finishes even in the top ten. But she competes as much as possible. As a result, she skated in the second group. The order of skating in the first round is based on competition experience, with the expectation that the more experienced skaters will be more accomplished and scores will continue to rise as we reach the favorites at the end. Isadora’s experience put her in the same group as Canada’s rising star, Kaetlyn Osmond, who finished 13th out of 30. Isadora wasn’t at that level, and certainly she had no expectation of winning a medal. But she also didn’t expect to finish in last place.

For me, the indelible moment came when she sat in the box where skaters wait to see their results, a place the commentators have nicknamed the “kiss and cry.” I fully understood that nickname at these games. As Isadora saw her scores, a good five points below the less experienced skaters who had gone in the first group, she scrunched up her face, as she put together what that meant.isadora2 She looked away for a moment, her face showing her realization that there was no way her position would change. Even worse, her low placement meant that she wouldn’t even get to skate in the long program. This, by the way, is a terrible rule. Commentator and former skater Johnny Weir put it well by saying that if you make it to the Olympics, you should get to skate.

At this point people would say that there’s no shame in finishing last in the Olympics. That’s true, and I hope when Isadora goes to Brazil, she receives a hero’s welcome. Because she is one. After her score was given, her coach gave her a hug. isadora3She smiled again, a smile clearly fighting with her tears, and waved to acknowledge the audience, as skaters do at that point. And with that, we never saw or heard of her again. But it is an image that, for some reason, has stayed burned in my head. And my heart.

I can relate to her disappointment, anguish even. Skating in the Olympics is amazing, but it doesn’t overcome the pain of being last. She gave it her best, but it wasn’t enough. Of course, it’s not really that big of a deal, and life goes on. Her life holds many more opportunities. In other events the stakes have been higher, especially in the “extreme” events like freestyle and snowboard, where there have been an astonishing number of crashes and injuries. Part of the risk, I suppose. That’s what makes it exciting. It’s what people want to see, which is why the media makes sure to show you those. A few decades ago the idea of things like slopestyle being in something as serious as the Olympics would have been laughed at. Now it’s the norm. What’s next? How do we go to the next level? Would people want to watch, or even participate in, some sort of “ski-or-die” event? The biathletes carry rifles…

As though to answer my musings, in the middle of the coverage I was assaulted by a commercial for the dvd release of the latest movie in the offensive Hunger Games series, a quick-fire onslaught of images of mayhem, where even the brief shot of beauty was just the precursor of horrors to come (That mysterious mist? It kills people, horribly). There’s two more movies to come, based on a book so packed full of carnage, brutality, torture and killing (including the mass murder of small children — by the good guys!) that I can’t imagine how it will avoid an R rating. And there was also an ad for the upcoming movie of Divergent, another despair-fest, based on a book whose author was probably the same age as gold medalist Sotnikova when she began writing it.

That’s not insignificant. These sickening teen books feature girls the same age as many of the Olympic skaters. But they are not the same. They are fictional, the products of dark, ugly places in the authors’ psyches. They exist in ludicrously unbelievable worlds. They get predestined happy endings to make up for the violence they endure, and commit. But it’s empty.

Sure, these “heroines” might improbably lead the rebellion that topples some autocratic dystopia that’s too implausible to exist in reality. But they didn’t skate on Olympic ice. They didn’t finish last and then, holding back their heartbreak, smile and wave at the audience. That’s real drama. That’s the triumph of the human spirit. These are the stories we should be telling. You go, Isadora!isadora4


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