Monday, 2 April 2012

Book Review: The Hunger Games

When I was little I didn't want to be a ballerina, or a princess, or a train driver when I grew up. (Ok I wanted to be a train driver a bit.) Instead I wanted, as I solemnly told my parents at the age of five, to be an author. I still do. I read voraciously everything I could get my hands on, Edith Nesbitt, Lewis Carroll, George MacDonald, CS Lewis, Madeleine L’Engle, Tolkein. I loved fantasy, adventure, peril and heroism, and I spent much of my childhood living half in the real world and half in the world of dragons and battles and princesses and rebellions and epic journeys. And for as long as I can remember I wrote stories and poems and songs. I dreamed of adventures and put them on paper.

Then when I was twelve I decided it was time to write my first book. I had just read the Tripods Trilogy and watched Star Wars for the first time at the cinema (we didn’t have a TV). I was in love with the idea of adventure, being a heroine, saving the world against the odds, rebellion against an empire, a life of romance and danger. But I was fed up with great books about bravery and winning and adventures and rebellion where there were no girls, or if there were, they were passive and pathetic and had to be saved by the boys. I wanted to be the hero.

So I feverishly wrote a story about a girl who starts a rebellion against an evil alien government, hiding out in a rebel camp in the mountains. I was the protagonist, surrounded by my harem of boys, all of whom were, naturally, deeply in love with me. But I was the hero, the strategist, the brave one, the general, the dreamer, the idealist, and hence far too busy for the amorous attentions of my pack of male assistants. I lived it and dreamed it, and although half of it was probably heavily plagiarised from an amalgamation of all my favourite adventure stories, it was the book I wanted to read.

A year or so later I threw it away in embarrassment, terrified that anyone would find it. When I went into mainstream education (I was homeschooled until the age of 13) I became acutely aware that independent girls, brave girls, adventurous girls just aren’t popular. Boys don’t like girls like me, I discovered. They don’t want me to be like that. I need to be petite and feminine and passively flirtatious. So I buried my heroine as I imagine a lot of teenager girls do when they realise society doesn’t want them to read books about independent girls. It wants them to read Cosmo Girl and Glamour and not to worry our pretty heads about things that aren’t make up and dieting.

But reading The Hunger Games brought that girl I tried to bury right back. It is the book I tried to write, the heroine I tried to create. It isn't perfect - at times I found it a little clumsy and some of the plot twists too convenient - but it is relentlessly addictive, so, so exciting and so anti-twilight anti-Cosmo Girl and downright anti-patriarchy it made me punch the air. It taps into that teenage feeling most of us have forgotten in the daily grind of commuting and reality TV, one of constant peril and breathless drama, a desire for romance and heroism and adventure.

Although this also accounts in part for the success of the Twilight series, where an ordinary mundane life gives way to a world of adventure, peril, romance (and chiefly being desired) everything Bella Swan - passive, unremarkable, inept and helpless - embodies; Katniss Everdeen isn’t. She is brave, capable, a provider, independent and strong - and this is what girls really want (and need) more of in our heroines. I know everyone has compared the Hunger Games to Twilight but inevitably these very different protagonists will end up being two pretty prominent influences on our teenage girls.

I wish I'd written this book. I wish I'd had it to read when I was a teenager. Our teenage girls (and boys) need more books with heroines who kick ass and take names. If I ever have teenage daughters Bella won't get through the front door, but Katniss will.

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