Are ‘The Hunger Games’ Books ‘Young Adult’ Literature?

The most recent issue of AARP’s magazine, one of the country’s leading journals in terms of subscriptions and reader numbers, features The Hunger Games as a wonderful read — and one that senior readers needn’t be embarrassed by, even though it is officially “teen lit.” From Great Books for Any Age: Why the best new fiction for adults is written for teens (originally ’60 Going on 16′ — hat tip to Deborah!):

Hungry for a deep, dark, addictively absorbing novel? Read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. The gripping story, a post-apocalyptic tale about a teenage girl who fights to survive lethal games televised for sport, has spent more than three years on The New York Times best-seller list, and the movie adaptation opens March 23.

The catch: It’s teen lit.

But don’t worry; the genre isn’t just for the young. The boundary of these books being read only by teenagers just isn’t there anymore, says David Levithan, a young-adult author and editorial director of Scholastic Press. Adults are really enjoying the books.They are also driving up revenues. Sales of books for children, teens and young adults rose by 12 percent from 2008 through 2010. (Sales of adult fiction, meanwhile, rose only 3.5 percent.)

This kind of thing makes me roll my eyeballs so hard, I imagine I look like Marty Feldman.

Is Oliver Twist a YA publication? Jane Eyre ‘teen lit’?

I think the argument can be made that the absence of explicit sexual scenes and there being a young adult protagonist are the substantive genre qualifiers for this topological category — and, as such, it is essentially meaningless. Every Bildungsroman written until well after Catcher in the Rye becomes ‘kid lit’ by these parameters.

But I am aware that I’m speaking from ignorance (and a little arrogant impatience with the academic Category/Gate Keepers). So I wrote Prof. Keen at Washington and Lee University in Lexington, Virginia (swinging ‘Lex Vegas,’ as my VMI daughter liked to call it) and asked her is the YA category label as meaningless or ‘just as helpful’ as the ‘R’ and ‘X’ movie ratings?

She answered my first question above:

Is Oliver Twist a YA publication? Jane Eyre ‘teen lit’?

In literary historical terms: no. The earliest form of “teen lit” or “YA” in the English novel tradition is boys’ adventure fiction, often thought to have been initiated by Robert Louis Stevenson with Treasure Island (1883). (Though there are a few earlier precursors.) In the 1880s and 1890s, adventure fiction took off as a separate mode of fiction aimed at a younger audience.  It always had adult readers–this is not a new phenomenon!

Jane Eyre (1847) and Oliver Twist (1837) predate that development. They were aimed at an adult readership that included children.  Dickens especially wrote with his read-aloud audience in mind.  Children and illiterates heard his stories read aloud by literate friends or parents.

In subsequent marketing/pedagogy: yes. Both the books you name become “teen books” when they are frequently taught to teens.  This happens even today.  Both Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird and Mark Haddon’s The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time have migrated into the YA canon (taught in middle schools and high schools) after initial publications aimed at serious adult literary readerships.

Where does that leave us in thinking about Hunger Games?

  • If it’s published by Scholastic, the paperback book club sponsors from elementary school and the Harry Potter gazillionaires, isn’t it Kid Lit, at best?
  • If it features a teen age girl as a heroine and she cannot choose between the two perfect young gentlemen who adore her, we’re in Seventeen land, aren’t we?
  • And if the LionsGate moviemakers awash in cash from their Twilight hits are releasing the Hunger Games franchise pilot, it’s safe to assume we’re talking about a ‘literary work’ that is an entertertainment-only diversion, isn’t it?

Um, that would be “No” to all of the above.

Suzanne Collins is experiencing Twilight and Harry Potter like success for the common sense reason that she uses the same tools as those authors (and a host of Greats from Homer to Dostoevsky and C. S. Lewis) to tell a riveting story of transformation that we experience from the inside. Like the Hogwarts and Forks Sagas, it is tagged ‘For Young Adults,’ but that category, as Prof. Keen points out, has never meant they weren’t written for adult readers and to do to them what the best stories are meant to do (see ‘Eliade Thesis’).

I’ll go so far as to say that both the absence of sex and the “it’s not serious material” message that comes with the “YA category” tag actually make the story easier for adults to enter into post suspension of disbelief because that suspension comes that much more readily if not challenged with “literary novel” baggage or the distraction of sex in the narrative line. Like Oliver Twist and Jane Eyre and the greater part of 19th and early 20th century writing, Hunger Games is an adult work exploring questions of love, death, war and peace, as well as the values and virtues that make life worth living and the choices we make to embrace or reject them.

Go ahead and label them them “teen lit” if you must, then. The category means nothing except the Kid Lit author, if s/he uses the tools that Meyer, Rowling, Collins, and Patrick Ness do, chooses to write accessibly, profoundly, and without putting up the barriers to story entrance and experience that so-called adult books have to have. What’s funny is that adults, those who style themselves “serious readers,” as often as not have the most trouble understanding this.

The power of topology — Your comments and corrections, please, and thank you, Prof. Keen!


  1. From Today’s ‘Globe and Mail’ (UK): Why Teens Should Read Adult Fiction and Vice-Versa

    It’s worth a read, if only to get a snootful of patronizing advice and guidance from a self-anointed Hermione Gatekeeper. Do serious readers need a Certified Expert to tell us what we “should be reading” or “not reading”?

    I think we want conversation about the books we love and why we love them rather than guidance about meaningless categories the Guide and Company thought up for textbook exercises in sorting.

    For much better fare, dive into “It’s All Kiddie Lit Now And That’s Just Fine” by Jett Heer.

    the current blurring of the lines between kids culture and adult culture is in fact a return to the norms that existed in the Victorian era. As literary scholar Beverly Lyon Clark demonstrated in her superb 2003 book Kiddie Lit, in the 19th century there was no clear-cut and obvious division between kids books and adult books. Herman Melville was praised for writing novels that “a child can always understand.”

    In 1895, one Victorian reader recalled that when Louisa May Alcott’s Little Women was being serialized in 1869, “grave merchants and lawyers meeting on their way downtown in the morning said to each other, ‘Have you read Little Women?’ and laughed as they said it. The clerks in my office read it, so also did the civil engineer, and the boy in the elevator.”

    What accounts for the curious populist reading culture of the Victorians, which assumed that kids could read Moby-Dick and adults could enjoy Little Women? Partly, there was the enduring power of the family. This was an era when many people read together under the roof of domesticity, complete with recitals and theatrical performances based on books. Given that families shared novels, books were assumed to have a multigenerational audience.

    But beyond the role of family life, which we see echoed in President Obama reading with his daughters, there was the unstated but widely held idea that reading is a democratic act, open to anyone who applies effort. Every child aspires to learn more, so she can push herself through difficult texts. Conversely, every adult was once a child and can, through reading, recapture some of the wonder and purity of earlier life.

    Wonderful. Do read the whole thing.

  2. RandomThoughts says

    THANK YOU for this brilliantly succinct response to “YA” labeling: Go ahead and label them them “teen lit” if you must, then. The category means nothing except the Kid Lit author, if s/he uses the tools that Meyer, Rowling, Collins, and Patrick Ness do, chooses to write accessibly, profoundly, and without putting up the barriers to story entrance and experience that so-called adult books have to have.

    I am decades past my own teen years, and extremely widely read (that’s not arrogance; I’ve been reading since I was three, enjoy just about every genre from scientific non fiction to mystery stories, and can easily read a 400 page book in one evening). I also have thoroughly enjoyed many “YA” books, the Hunger Games series among them. And I really dislike the patronizing attitude of many a reviewer who seems to believe that if a novel doesn’t contain “adult themes,” i.e. descriptions of sexual activity, it’s not worth an adult’s time.

  3. I get so annoyed when people label things as teen lit. My dad is a prime example of this and it really riles me! I was reading “Teen Lit” at 7/8, if I liked the look of it, started the Harry Potter series as a 6 year old, and read up to GOF by the age of 7. Why should we label things. Said parent won’t read the Hunger Games because they are “Kid Books”, but one of my favourite novels is 1984, which he also enjoys, and has some themes in common with Hunger Games. I must disagree though, that adventure island books are “Kids Books”. Having just read Lord of the Flies, I can safely say that isn’t a children’s book, they would fall asleep before they finished it! But in actuality, it is quite unsettling, not anything I would let the 7 year old me read. Same goes for the Gone series, which has children stranded without adults, all the makings of the typical adventure book, by Michael Grant. It is disturbing to the point I had nightmares about it. Not that it stopped me, being an adrenaline junkie. I am lucky enough I am still a teen, and therefore will not be judged if I read it. I am not looking forward to being a 20 year old who still wants to read so called teen fiction. I think Amazon may have more custom from me.

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