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War-themed 'Hunger Games' poses a difficult choice for parents

Wednesday, July 18, 2012 | 6:00 a.m. CDT; updated 9:19 a.m. CDT, Monday, October 8, 2012

This story is part of a larger project on book challenges in Missouri and the U.S. Find the full project here.

COLUMBIA —  Brenda Gray is as complimentary as can be when talking about “The Hunger Games,” the book she tried to have removed from her daughter's school. In fact, she's a big fan of it.

“It's a good book for (kids age) 13 and up to read and learn about the world,” Gray said.

Therein lies the problem: Her daughter, Erica, was 11 when “The Hunger Games” became assigned reading for her in 2009. The Suzanne Collins book was part of the curriculum for sixth-graders that year at Jackson R-2 Middle School in southeast Missouri, but Gray was taken aback when Erica described some of the contents.

After reading the book herself, Gray started making phone calls. Parents around the world, it turned out, share her concerns.

Gray was far from the first parent to express concern about “The Hunger Games.” The book, about a post-American nation where teens are selected to fight to the death so the winner can feed his or her home district, raised eyebrows from the time it was first published in 2008. The American Library Association listed the book, together with its sequels “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay,” among the 10 most-challenged books in the country each of the past two years.

That trend can be at least partially traced to the movie adaptation, which raised the profile of the book when it went into production and created its own controversy upon release this past spring. According to a March 14 article in The Guardian, British censors told Lionsgate Films to trim seven seconds of graphic scenes from the movie to keep its 12A rating, which deems a movie appropriate for those as young as 12 who are accompanied by a parent or guardian. The movie received a PG-13 rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, the restriction coming mostly because of graphic material involving teens.

Collins, the media-averse author of “The Hunger Games,” holds little back about the book's premise. She told the New York Times last year, “I don't write about adolescence. I write about war. For adolescents.”

None of this stopped both the book and its sequels from topping bestseller lists, or the movie from becoming a blockbuster that earned more than $250 million at the box office in its first 10 days alone.

For Gray, however, popularity wasn't the issue; the teen-on-teen violence was, at least when read by 11- and 12-year-olds. She called “The Hunger Games” publisher Scholastic Press — as well as booksellers such as Barnes & Noble and Amazon.com — to ask about a recommended age for readers. Each suggested the book was best suited for readers 12 or 13 or older.

Gray then met with Jackson Middle School Principal Rodney Pensel, who said he believed the passages troubling Gray were taken out of context. Gray filed a formal book challenge in November 2009.

A committee of educators and administrators that met later that month decided, based on reading the book and on its age recommendation in library conferences, to keep the book on the Jackson district's library shelves. Gray said she was initially disappointed, but she was relieved that Erica wouldn't have to read the book and was allowed an alternate assignment.

Today, three years later, both Gray and 14-year-old Erica are fans of “The Hunger Games.” Erica went to see the movie recently, and Gray said she loved it. The book hasn’t been challenged in Missouri since.

But with the other two books in the series approved for movie adaptations, it's a safe bet that more challenges lie ahead.

Supervising editors are Scott Swafford and Charles Davis.


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