Thursday, December 1, 2011

Beyond the Hunger Games

[update: Read reviews of the movie from NPR , Hot Air and The New York Times. I could not find a glowing review, so I selected the literate ones.  Although the movie is really hot right now, it does not seem to be a candidate for serious inclusion in the ELA curriculum. But use the reviews for informational literacy!]

Enough already!  The Hunger Games may be the most-included fiction book in classrooms grades 8-12 this year. On the EC ning, teachers continue to call for lesson plans, engaging activities, and rationales for teaching THG (as it has come to be known, in the spirit of TKM).  The lexile of this novel is 810.  That puts its complexity in the 4-5 grade range, not even at the top of the "stretch" band for students in those grades. (If you don't believe me, refer to's Text Complexity Grade Bands, redrawn to reflect the new Common Core and used to determine text complexity for the proposed 2014 testing.)

I am losing faith in my ELA colleagues across this country.  In the past, I have championed dystopian literature, graphic novels, iJournalism in graphic form, and (often) children's books for use at the MS and HS level.  But I stop short of making a light read the focus of a serious, standards-based literature curriculum.

[update: If you do decide to teach the novel, you might be guided by some of the literate ideas in this New York Times Learning Network blog post]

That the Hunger Games appeals to student readers is not arguable.  But why does it appeal to so many ELA teachers?

I'm afraid that the answer is, "It's easy."  Easy to read and easy to teach, given the plethora of teacher-created unit resources being shared (sometimes freely, sometimes not) online.  Schmoop has a guide.  The movie has been made.  Hunger Pains, the graphic novel parody, has been written. An authorized graphic novel is probably in the works.  There are book-related recipes floating around.  There are classroom simulation activities available.  The novel has become the center of thematic units ranging from authoritarian societies to family.  Family??  Like a good Dickens, THG seems to be suitable for any MS or HS thematic unit.

I know this book.  I know its sequels.  It is NOT literature.  It is not Dickens.  A great story, yes, but the center of a serious ELA unit, no.  Teachers who believe that there is a deep ethical or moral dilemma played out in the novel are kidding themselves.  Nothing is played out in the novel.  Everything just happens, in a video game-respond-don't-think-way. The adult bad guys set up, pursue, harass, and are ultimately defeated by (or stale-mated by) the teen protagonist, who works with no or little adult support - at best with a poorly drawn mentor. Students are deeply engaged in a linear plot related in the 1st person present tense by an insipid and rather shallowly drawn narrator.   

Just happens is the essence of the average YA dystopian experience.  I understand this appeal.  I understand that today's students do not, for the most part, want to stretch themselves with a text. I understand that most kids do not want to exercise that "go back and reread" skill required by denser and more complex text.  If you are wondering about why, read through the discussion at this GoodReads forum: Dystopias and Social Critiques

I do NOT understand why so many of my colleagues have rolled over to the pressure to make students not have to stretch. While they sit around wondering "what kids need to grow up successfully and well into the 21st century,"  too many teachers are giving students no new or stronger insights into what it means to be an adult in an adult world. 

Middle Ground:  There are excellent dystopian novels out there for the classroom.  Not surprisingly, most of them have support materials available online and in print.  Teachers who don't want to be lazy - who are willing to risk the rolling of eyeballs - should lead their students in the direction of these literary dystopias.

A word about lexile measures - they are only one of three measures that should be made of a novel.  I personally don't give them more than a cursory glance, preferring to read several chapters (or the whole book) and then a few reviews before deciding how to match book to student.  I understand that this is not the way ELA reading selection is structured today, and I lament that.  I am not providing lexiles, I am providing recommendations.  These are literary titles that I know.  Forget the lexiles.  I would make the same judgement of THG (too fluffy for serious literary study) if I did not know its lexile.

Dystopian novels exist that are solid stuff, that will stretch most MS or HS readers, if not in terms of text complexity, then in terms of literary qualities (figurative language, style, tone, narrative, plot complexity and variation) and thematic depth.  Lexiles do not reflect these last two qualities.

Teachers - You have to read the books. Stretch yourselves to stretch your students!

Middle (7+) - Overall, the protagonist is a child, the antagonists are adult, but these deal with deeper issues that are not at all childlike. I might call them baby steps to growing up as a reader.

Coifer - The Supernaturalist -  future dystopia where unwanted children are...  also graphic novel
Ness - The Knife of Never Letting Go
Anderson - Feed  
Roth - Divergent (a protagonist more interesting than Katniss)
Pearson - The Adoration of Jenna Fox
Hautman - Rash
Card -  Ender's Game
Philbrick - The Last Book in the Universe
Bradbury - Fahrenheit 451
Levitin - The Cure
Golding - Lord of the Flies (not really dystopia, but so like one...)
Pratchett - Nation (not really dystopia, but so like one...)

Higher: - Overall, the protagonists are adults in adult worlds. Overall, the books are longer. These are for kids who are ready for the autonomy of growing up and thinking at the same time. 

Fialkov - Elk's Run - graphic novel - post-Vietnam utopia gone wrong - for those who have grown up after The Hunger Games  - MS
Bruchac - Killer of Enemies - deeply drawn futuristic dystopia with base in Apache culture
Wilson - Robopocalypse
Orwell - 1984 and Animal Farm
King - The Running Man
Kitano - Battle Royale (translation) - was this the idea for THG?
Wells - The Time Machine
McCarthy - The Road
Miller - A Canticle for Leibowitz
Atwood - The Handmaiden's Tale
Gibson - Neuromancer
James - The Children of Men
Clifford - The Book
Wyndham - The Chrysalids
Moore - V for Vandetta (graphic novel)
Brooks - World War Z
Dick - Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?  

As always, suggestions are welcome.  


  1. As a pre-service ELA teacher who has read the Hunger Games trilogy multiple times, I consider this blog entry incredibly narrow-minded. Yes, older students may be ready to appreciate works such as Battle Royale or Ender's Game (both of which I have read), but middle school students (especially 6th graders) are probably not ready for these kind of works. This blog entry makes me think that you may not have been present in a 6th grade classroom for a long while. To get students to read ANYTHING can be incredibly difficult. I have students coming up to me every day saying they can't find a book in a classroom library with hundreds of books. My fallback suggestion for 6th grade boys who would rather be hunting or four-wheeling? The Hunger Games or Hatchet. I have yet to meet a 6th grader who hasn't fallen completely in love with this series. There is nothing wrong with reaching students where they are, and where they are right now is in the arena with Katniss. YA literature (literature actually written for and about young adults) is a legitimate basis for a unit in a middle or high school classroom. While yes, the Hunger Games ISN'T Dickens (Collins didn't mean for it to be), it does have a place in today's literature and pedagogy.

  2. It's a year later now and the Common Core looms. Of the lists above, I'm not sure how many would pass muster in a true CC ELA classroom. A few, yes. On the other hand, students are still reading some dystopia, much zombie, variations on vampires, and increasingly mystery. They are definitely, despite the advice of the pundits to increase NF, reading trending YA - and even adult - fiction. I believe they need to be provided with as much of this as possible, so I mourn the decline of the school library. I also, by the way, think the last third of the last book in the Trilogy (Mockingjay) is close to as good at is gets in YA. Some of it even deserves close reading...