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Published: Saturday, 3/31/2012

COMMENTARY

Trilogy sparks hunger for reading in young adults

BY MARILOU JOHANEK
BLADE COLUMNIST

The most reluctant reader I know couldn't put the book down. We read most of the first book of The Hunger Games trilogy together.

Sometimes, my sixth grader would sneak in a few more chapters after bedtime. His parents didn't protest.

Before I knew it, I was also losing sleep over the fate of Katniss and Peeta. Their post-apocalyptic nightmare conspired to keep mother and son up late.

Suzanne Collins did more than write three best-selling teen-action novels and inspire a blockbuster movie. She gave kids something to do besides text nonstop and play computer games.

She gave adults, who start more books than they finish with their disinterested kids, reason to celebrate. The must-read fiction was a must-have among middle and high school students, nearly out-trending Vera Bradley accessories.

But getting your hands on the coveted book series was easier said than done. Libraries had long waiting lists. Even at $53.97, the Collins' 3-pack was flying off store shelves.

Midway through my reading of the first book, I saw trailers of the upcoming Hunger Games film all over TV. The dystopian drama coming to the big screen gave readers extra incentive to finish the book before they saw the movie.

We read down to the wire, my son and I. Unlike previous, almost painful attempts to nurture the joy of reading in a 12-year-old boy, this challenge was no chore.

Mission accomplished. Standing in line for theater tickets with a crush of other young fans, my reading convert could barely contain his anticipation.

Inside the packed theater, a largely adolescent audience -- and the adults who drove them -- chattered about favorite characters in the book, checked who read what in the trilogy, and wondered how the movie would measure up to the initial book.

Did I stumble into an alternate universe? Since when did teens and preteens critique literary worth just for the fun of it? Throughout the movie, my son, sporting a self-designed T-shirt to commemorate The Hunger Games, was full of questions as he connected the dots.

The film was good, he concluded afterward. The book was better. I had to pinch myself. I'm not alone. Middle school and high school teachers are shaking their heads at the aberration of kids reading with abandon.

It's rare to find a single book that gets everyone's attention, "that everyone can identify with," said Mary Traut, a first-year high school teacher in Milan, Ohio. She started her freshman language arts class at Edison High School with The Hunger Games and reports a phenomenal response.

"Some students got through the book rather quickly and spent more time interpreting the underlying plots and studying how characters evolve," she said. Other "built confidence in their reading" by sticking with the book from beginning to end.

The book may have been written at a fifth or sixth-grade reading level, said Ms. Traut, but it's hugely popular with older students. Not all students read at grade level, and many are turned off by text that's difficult to grasp, she said.

A fulfilling reading experience with a compelling, easy-to-follow narrative could encourage them to keep their heads in a book. That's a positive development.

As far back as The Catcher in the Rye and as recently as the Harry Potter novels, critics seem to object to books that hold mass appeal among young people. The Hunger Games is no exception.

Detractors complain that the content is too violent. The central event in the first book of the trilogy is an annual televised fight to the death among children from various districts surrounding a lavish capital.

It is brutal, but "none of the students cared about the violence or the games themselves as much as the romantic relationships, the questioning of capital authority, the not-your-typical-female lead," Ms. Traut said. They cared about drawing "deeper parallels between the world portrayed in the book and our own."

Whatever gets reluctant readers to turn the page -- whether a tenacious heroine torn between two lovers or a daring uprising against the ruthless 1 percent -- is all I care about. Whatever brings generations together over a book is a story that needs to be told.

Marilou Johanek is a columnist for The Blade.

Contact her at: mjohanek@theblade.com



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