Hunger Haters on the Scene: Is America Incapable of Understanding Satire?

While The Hunger Games  isn’t likely to garner the sort of opposition we’ve seen from the Harry Haters, it seems it was just a matter of time until the novel upset some angry parent somewhere.  A mother in New Hampshire is kicking up a fuss over her daughter’s school assigning The Hunger Games. She is convinced that the book is giving her daughter nightmares and that it is “wholly inappropriate for her daughter or any other student.” Check out the whole article here, where the mother rails against the book because  “Twenty-four children are pitted in a life-or-death struggle with each other. The reason? Entertainment. That’s sick….You guys don’t want Columbine, but you’re putting forth material that will totally desensitize the children to murdering other children.” No kidding, that’s what she said.

    Which, of course, begs the question: does anyone understand satire anymore? The middle school students in question are probably too young for the novel, mostly because the historical and literary allusions would make class use of the book a little rough for students not yet versed in those areas, but to suggest that reading it is going to produce a bunch of school-bombers is beyond ludicrous.  Does this controversy indicate that American readers are losing (or have already lost ) the capability to understand literary satire? Does this mother honestly think that Collins’s novel supports and encourages violence in its portrayal of what happens in a culture with reality television gone wild? I can’t imagine any of my students, who range in age from dual enrolled high schoolers to grandparents, wanting to sign up as Career Tributes or apply for positions as Capitol Gamemakers. In fact, plenty of them are seriously re-thinking the way the entertain themselves, and a number are now actively looking for ways to make our own world better and less violent.  Even if  student readers don’t start turning off reality shows in which contestants lie, cheat, steal, and stop just short of killing each other for a million bucks, even if students don’t start thinking about where their clothes are made and their food grown, The Hunger Games does what the Capitol doesn’t want any of its citizens to do: think for themselves. And if we prohibit our students from reading any satire at all, we are also denying them the opportunity to think and learn. If this mother thinks Hunger Games is “filth,” would she also think Swift’s “A Modest Proposal” was a serious proposition that cannibalism was the way to fix the “Irish Problem”? If parents and teachers cannot understand satire, how can we expect anything more from our students?


  1. We can’t. And our society will pay dearly if we aren’t able to read & teach satire. You are so right, Elizabeth. I have already noticed a decline in the critical-thinking skills of my students from ten years ago. So many of them just do not see the true meaning in satire; they are unable to read between the lines. But you don’t even have to read between the lines in these novels–Collins put it out there for you who the “enemy” is!

    My sophomores could not wait to read Mockingjay after we spent almost an entire semester on the first two novels last year. I am so thankful that I have not had a single complaint from a parent. We have, though, had objections for other books in the past. And it seems in every case, it’s always the same: the one objecting fails to see the satire, the underlying theme, the “moral” of the story. They jump to conclusions when some of them have not even read the book entirely; they just choose passages they object to. When taken out of context, parts of any book can seem as a proponent of the very theme it objects to. Why? Because you MUST show/demonstrate the awful behavior in order to teach that it has awful consequences. It’s like trying to teach that drunk driving is bad without showing a drunk person driving and causing a terrible accident: it’s NOT effective without that lasting visual.

    If we want a dumber America, then I guess this woman is on the right track. Maybe Collins was foreshadowing this with her Star Squad 451 allusion!?

  2. Tracee, I almost took offense to the thought about the decline in critical-thinking skills, until I remembered that my freshman year of high school was eight years ago. Thinking about the correct age group, I have seen the decline in understanding, too. Even though my 18-year-old sister loves the Hunger Games series, I’m pretty sure she thinks they’re about a girl living in a dystopia… who has to choose between Gale and Peeta. At least she knows what a dystopia is, I guess?

    Part of me wonders if it stems back to the lower expectations in elementary school now. My uncle is training as an elementary school student teacher, and his first-grade students are expected to read familiar sentences by the end of the year. Or something equally low in expectations. It really bothers me because I was reading chapter books by the time I turned six (granted, they were “The Babysitter’s Club” and similar books). But if they’re starting the basics of reading later, it would make sense that the subtleties of reading are taking longer for students to find. But at any rate, the lack of understanding while reading is annoying…

  3. Yes, I am saying just in recent years I have noticed a decline (not the students I had 8 years ago!). I think the pressure of performing on standardized tests has made administrators nervous and put more pressure on teachers to do more drills and practice tests. But I think the true failure is that people (meaning those who decide how to evaluate students’ skills) do not see how creative & critical thinking skills will help students more than “scanning” or “skimming” reading exercises. Or perhaps they just can’t evaluate those skills because they are not easily assessed on a bubble test.

    I think the standards have changed, as well. It goes along with making sure 100% of all students are at grade level by 2014, which is impossible. So instead of setting a more realistic goal and keeping high standards, we lower the bar so all can jump over it. Makes no sense whatsoever.

  4. Forgot to add that I meant no offense to you, Rochelle, and there are always some students each year who do excel and have these skills. It just seems to be fewer and fewer students possess those essential skills as the years go by.

  5. I’m not offended at all. I’ve been out of school altogether for nearly a year, and nearly five years out of high school and “standardized tests.” It’s nice to read a teacher’s perspective on what’s happening, though it makes me nervous for what things will be like for my (hypothetical) children.

  6. I completely agree. I have not had the opportunity to read the Hunger Games books yet, although I plan to as soon as I can. They sound great. The idea of children fighting each other to the death reminds me of the days when the Romans threw Christians and other “criminals” to wild animals in the arena for entertainment. I does seem amazing that anyone could seriously think an author’s depiction of such barbarity is meant to be taken as something to be approved and promoted. But given the culture we live in, perhaps it should not come as such a surprise.
    I think some of the more conservative Christians, of which I am one, are having a hard time distinguishing between what “the world” intends to be taken literally and what is meant figuratively. At least, I suppose, those who did not major in English and, consequently, are unfamiliar with literary interpretation are. We are expected to accept and even approve so much of what seems beyond ludicrous and even brutal and unnatural to us, such as abortion and the redefinition of marriage, so much of what goes against our gut instinct (not to mention biblical definition) about what is right and wrong, that sometimes it’s hard to tell what in popular culture is to be taken as approval and what is condemnation. Many times when I read the news or hear something on television which purports to be truth, I feel like it must be a satire. But I know they are completely serious, as amazing as it seems.
    I don’t know whether the lady in the article is actually a Christian, and I completely disagree with anyone who feels they have the right to attempt to regulate what other people may read or teach in school. But I think the woman’s lack of perception about books which are popular in the current culture may not be so mystifying after all. Although, it would be nice if people would actually read books before passing judgment on them. I am as perplexed by some Christians’ refusal to read certain books before condemning them as everyone else.

  7. Louise Freeman says

    Condemning the Hunger Games for promoting violence is like accusing Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird for promoting racism. But, since those books are challenged yearly for exactly those reasons, that really doesn’t help us much.

  8. I don’t think I believe this woman read the book and came to the conclusion it was promoting violence. Any adult who can figure out how to petition a school board has the basic skills to understand what is going on in these books. I have to assume she only read bits and pieces and decided that was enough to draw her own conclusions. (And I can’t say I’ve never done that myself) Even if she hasn’t read the book, or if she did and somehow completely missed the point, I still think she should be able to ask for alternate assignments for her individual kids. It asks way too much of teachers to try to gauge the maturity level of each of the 30+ students in their class. That is the parent’s responsibility. But I don’t think one parent should have a say over the entire school.

    I do feel bad for her daughter, though. My initial thought was that seventh grade is a little too young for the book to be required reading. I think exposure to elements (language/sex/violence/etc) that are more mature than you can handle does more harm than good and gets in the way of understanding a book’s message. And I’m sure there’s a level of embarrassment to having your mom tell everyone a book is giving you bad dreams. I hope she doesn’t end up taking home the lesson that it’s just best not to get your parents involved in what you’re doing in school. Or worse yet that reading is a disturbing enough activity that she becomes turned off to it.

  9. I don’t think 7th grade is too young at all. These kids are exposed to far more violence in world history, which is usually taught in 5th-6th grade (remember learning about the explorers and their “conquests” of the Americas? Pretty violent stuff; complete with visuals in our textbooks, as well.). I don’t think anyone would argue that we shouldn’t learn about our past atrocities so we do not repeat the same mistakes–Collins is just reinforcing what these kids have already been exposed to in their history books, just in a more captivating way that they can actually understand. Kids SHOULD be shocked by the violence–it shows they aren’t already “desensitized.”

    The recommended age is 12 and up. What I don’t understand is how an 11-year old girl is in 7th grade. Aren’t most 7th graders 12 or 13 years old? Perhaps she isn’t mature enough to read it, but I agree that this one student should not dictate curriculum for all. An alternative assignment would be a solution, or perhaps the girl is just not ready for 7th grade.

  10. I was 11 in seventh grade… but only for about three weeks. There are a few states (Hawaii I believe is one of them) where the cut-off date for a grade isn’t until later in the year. If she lives in a place where that is true, then she should be nearly 12. And if not, and she managed to skip a grade earlier on (which is sort of what I did), then her parents should have been warned before she moved up a grade that she might be exposed to ideas like this… I know before I started kindergarten early, the teachers had a long talk with my parents about possible ramifications.

    Plus, like Collins has said in many of her interviews: She was exposed to war far earlier than age 11, and was able to process it in a way that led to these books in the first place. If the author insists, from personal experience, that children 12 and up should be able to handle these war stories, then I think on a classroom-wide level this should be applied. Alternate assignments would be a good idea as far as avoiding it goes, but a far better one might be mother and daughter sitting down to read and discuss the books together. Then mom can field any questions the daughter has, while learning that Collins’ point is anything but to endorse war and violence.

  11. The Hunger Games books are nowhere near as disturbing as, say, Lord of the Flies, which is widely regarded as a classic, and one which I read in high school (still, it was disturbing). The underlying, most horrifying element to that book is that there is no recourse, no one to turn to in this godless world, which is symbolized by there being no adults present (other than a dead one).

    But in The Hunger Games there are adult supervisors present. Again, there are the God-man metaphors where the children make appeals to the skies, turn to the heavens for the information they need, and oftentimes, receive gifts and even, finally, “deus ex machina” deliverance.

    And as John suggests, the Hunger Games denounces violence in profound ways. in comparison, the Lord of the Flies revels in its violence and gore.

    So although there is violence, it is condoned, sponsored and encouraged by adults; the adults are ultimately responsible, not the children. So, unless the child-readers are being raised to be a suicide bomber or something, the book never reaches anywhere near the level of horror that the classic and widely-read-in-schools “Lord of the Flies” reaches.

    I expect that the film version will include many “Truman Show” type moments: “meanwhile, back in the control room,” shots of the viewers in the Capital and Districts while they watch and react, etc., which would hammer these points home. Looking forward to those additions.

  12. krista Laws says

    I think parents need to be warned a head of time that way if their child does have problems processing and understanding what the issues that they read about in the book they can help them understand them. I think the moral of the hunger games is an important lesson for young kids to lear which is that all things in life are not perfect and happy. I think anyone would object to this book has not read all the book and does not really understand what the book is about and what the book really teaches kids. I think this book teaches kids that violence is not the answer.
    Krista Laws

  13. We can’t.” – Tracee.

    Tracee is american, and she understands satire. I think we can, and do on a regular basis as this website shows. I appeal to three people:

    1. Kurt Vonnegut
    2. Stephen Colbert
    3. Charlie Kaufman

    All three have a heavy influence on American culture. All three make (or made) their living off of satire — one of them off a Fellows grant. I know a student who just the other day said, “I think Zombie Apocalypses are critiques on our culture.”

    Yes, I believe there’s a problem with the parents understanding.
    But no, that’s not affecting the perception of their children.

    As a symbol for what I just said, I point to William Fitzsimmons ( ), child of two blind parents who grew up around music, got famous as an indy-rocker, and lives with both sight and insight.

    Just because my parents are blind to symbolism doesn’t mean I was in high school. In fact, neither are my siblings.

  14. Lancelot-I think you are misunderstanding my point. The mother just took parts from the book that she objected to, probably without reading it & judging it as a whole work. That is the problem with many (both adults & students) with understanding satire: they don’t read it as a whole! How can they “get it” if they don’t read it?? They can’t.

    There are always exceptions (thankfully!) like Rochelle and other students who do read the assigned text and who do get satire and symbolism. But can you honestly say in your high school classes ALL the kids were reading the text assigned? And if you were to only read a small part of any of Vonnegut’s books (one of my all time fave authors, by the way), you would probably first of all be completely lost, and secondly wouldn’t get the symbolism. Novels, stories, poems–whatever the literature–should all be read and judged as a whole, rather than by its parts. Might as well throw journalism and other non-fiction in there, as well. We see what the media can do to quotes taken out of context. People won’t ever be able to get it if they don’t read it as a whole.

  15. From what I understand (disclaimer: I’ve not actually read the books, and have no overwhelming desire to read them), Collins is walking a fine line–attacking what she wants to condemn through portraying it. Using fire to fight fire; depicting violence to repudiate violence. Speaking as a writer, t takes either the skill of a master or a very clear demarcation of Right and Wrong for this to succeed. Alan Paton succeeded; Upton Sinclair didn’t. Paton’s message rings through every sentence of his work; you can see the evil, know it’s evil, brace to fight against it and weep for those suffering under it. Sinclair did so well portraying the horrors of meat packing, and the awful things shoved in the food, that people obsessed over that a missed his ‘Look at the Plight of the Suffering Laborers!’ theme.

    Collins may or may not have the chops to be a Paton–I frankly think she has less material to work with, given her subject, and that writers like Paton only come along twice a century or so–but she can’t complain too loudly if people misunderstand her books; it’s a risk she’s taking with the form she’s using.

    That said–no. We don’t understand satire. Not the true, subtle, exquisite satire of Swift and Johnson and Shaw. We embrace farce; anything more subtle tends to get drowned out. Which is really depressing, if you think about it too long, so I’ll stop.

  16. you’re correct, tracee, I did misunderstand.

    However, I stand by my assessment. It may be inductive but I put Colbert on there because we listened to him all through highschool, and John Stewart before that. The twenty to thirty people I hung out with loved both of those guys and laughed at the jokes out of understanding. One of them, a scrawny, short guy with glasses wrote a poem for an assignment called, “I’m a Man” and talked up all of his robust physical features like “luberjack-chiseled arms” and “burly beard” – none of which existed. As an avid reader of the New Yorker, it should mean something when I say it remains the greatest peice of poetic satire I’ve ever read. It was, and still is, hilarious – perhaps even because it was so personal.

    I was in a play called “The Mouse that Roared” in highschool, the whole cast and crew (like fortyish people) loving it because of the satire and critique on the cold war.

    And in middleschool, I was reading The Prisoner of Azkaban — my favorite part? The satire of the witch burnings in the beginning of the book.

    Do they read everything? No. But as a classicist, I don’t believe I have to read everything in order to understand context. I think that this Mother is ignorant, but I don’t think that to be indicative of the culture.

    If it is, why were The Hunger Games so popular? The satire is the genre, without it, the series falls.

  17. There’s one thing that I’ve truly come to understand after studying the list of books that were questioned on school curriculums…the parents who question them are usually the overzealous coddling type and quite often (I’m sorry to say since I am Christian) overly religious. For as long as books have been in print there has always been someone trying to censor them and this is not going to stop anytime soon. Look at Catcher in the Rye, look at The Awakening…classics that weren’t appreciated till years and years after publication. All we can really do is wait for it to blow over and resign ourselves to the fact that there is always going to be someone who will miss the point the book is trying to get across.

  18. I know I’m a year to late to comment on any of this…I’m just a tad behind on my reading! Rereading Hunger Games for the 3rd time right now.

    My husband recommended these books to his mother. Interestingly, she is a retired college librarian. And a good one. Her exact words were, “I don’t know why you thought I would like this!” I do think she took the book literally. I can’t think of any other explanation. When we see her at Thanksgiving, I will be questioning her!

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