Pop Culture

Should parents let their children feed on 'The Hunger Games'?

Suzanne Collins' "Catching Fire"

If "Hunger Games" fever is striking in your house these days, you're not alone. "Catching Fire," the second filmed entry adapted from the wildly-successful book trilogy is about to hit theaters, and with over 36 million copies of the books sold, the phenomenon is inescapable. But what's a parent to do if their child wants a bite at "The Hunger Games" books — or any of the dark, disturbing young adult fiction now crowding bookshelves?

Experts are clear: Now that YA fiction has taken such a dark, often violent turn, parents can't turn a blind eye. “Content is more frightening and gory than ever, and the bar keeps getting set higher and higher,” says Dr. Fran Walfish, a child and family psychotherapist and author of “The Self-Aware Parent.” “Teenagers love that thrill.”

“It’s a cashing in on the ‘Potter Effect,’” says G. P. Taylor, author of 15 YA novels, including the “Vampire Labyrinth” and “Mariah Mundi” series. “Publishers are saying to authors, ‘Write a kids’ book!’ So they do, and it ends up being an adult book with child characters.”

The trend has led to a wide field of books that, despite being labeled “young adult” fiction, are not appropriate for many young readers. “When you’re young, your impressions of the world are still being formed — and how you think about relationships can be affected by what you read,” says Dr. Claire McCarthy, a pediatrician and medical communications editor at Boston Children’s Hospital.

That’s why it’s no longer sufficient to assume that if your child is reading, they’re ready for the material they’ve picked up. Mother of three and media specialist in the Maryland public school system Alexis Gerard says one of her daughters read “Hunger Games” as a 5th grader; another read it while in 8th grade, and her husband read it aloud to their son when he was a 5th grader. In the meantime, she read the books and had “many rich conversations” with both her children and students.

“Giving them the freedom to read what they want is a real gift,” she says. “But just because a child can read something doesn’t mean that they should read it — it’s not so much how old the child is, but maturity. If you are concerned that a book’s themes, contents, language, etc. are out of whack with your family values or may not be appropriate for your child, the best thing you can do is read the book for yourself.”

That said, she added that the “Hunger Games” trilogy does emphasize many “redeeming values,” including perseverance, resourcefulness and friendship, among others.

Mom and musician Gata Negrra, who homeschools her children, read “Hunger Games” with her 13-year-old son and a lively debate ensued. “We both enjoyed it,” she reports, “though we both jokingly agreed that the author had issues.”

“You have to know your individual child,” says Walfish. “Before you allow or offer this material to children, have a straight, open dialogue. Get inside your child’s mind first.”

But trying to keep on top of every new popular YA series is a massive undertaking, which is why some – including author Taylor — suggest a ratings system for YA books might be in order. “It’s only fair to parents to have something like that on the back of the books,” he says. “Does it contain horror? Violence? That helps parents get some insight.”

Other options for parents include exploring websites like Goodreads, Booklist and Common Sense Media, all of which provide suggested ages for YA books, and some include descriptions of content.

“I’m not necessarily one for censorship,” says McCarthy. “But I am one for making sure parents know the themes that are in books, and that they have conversations with kids.”

For Taylor, it’s about parents, authors and publishers doing due diligence. “I have a duty of care,” he says. “I want readers to be thrilled, but not terrified. I want them to read it, but only when it’s right for them.”

"Catching Fire" opens in theaters on Nov. 22. Here's what Common Sense Media had to say about the book.