December Book Review: Teen Fiction

I haven’t made much progress with the non-fiction book this month, in spite of having one checked out for 5 weeks; I’ve gotten sucked into children’s/young adult fiction.

But it never ceases to amaze me that at some times in history, and in some circles, reading fiction was regarded as scandalous and, worse, a waste of time – no better than, in the words of one man, “a pre-fabricated daydream.” Of some fiction, yes, that is true. But the best fiction is as instructive as any textbook and a lot more memorable. This month I review two very different series which provided two very different takeaways.

A few months ago I started reading the Betsy-Tacy series. The early books (which start when Betsy and Tacy are 5 years old) can be read at the most leisurely pace you desire. But once I got halfway through high school they became surprisingly compelling. Each was read late into the night and the minute one was done I checked out the next two.

Betsy and Tacy graduate high school in 1910, so the adventures of their high school crowd are exceedingly innocent and fun. They go for drives and picnics. They congregate at Betsy’s house, with Betsy’s family, for Sunday night dinner. They stand around the piano and sing by the hour. They dance spontaneously in the living room or go to dances – the old-fashioned kind, with dance cards and a three-dance limit for any two people.

Honestly, I’m completely jealous. Having once in my life been present at an impromptu sing-along, I can testify that it’s a lot more fun than our self-conscious generation would expect. In fact, after reading these books – which were based on the author’s experiences growing up – I suspect the last couple generations just might not know how to have as much fun as people who lived before the age of video games and 24/7 TV did.

Should I ever have kids, I hope this is the kind of teenage experience they can have. But I wonder, is that even possible? Will kids by then be so electronics-ized that they can’t comprehend or join in this fun? That sounds alarmist and probably is but I think it would have taken strong leadership to get a group of kids to do this in my day, and I can’t imagine it’s going to get better.

No sooner had I finished those than the library informed me I had reached first place in line for a book that depicts an experience I hope my kids never have: The Hunger Games. The timing was bad, but given that it had taken two months to work my way up from #37 and there were now 28 people behind me, I went to get it. (In a moment of stupidity I failed to request the 2nd and 3rd books at the same time as the first, which means I’m now 142nd and 85th in line, respectively. It’s good to know people still read.)

On the face of it, The Hunger Games doesn’t make sense as a young adult book; for those of you who haven’t seen or heard of the movie, it’s about a group of 12- to 18-year-olds who are pitted together in a government-organized, fight-to-the-death, last-survivor-wins televised entertainment.

But while this is certainly a more subtle and sophisticated read than, say, The Princess Diaries, there are plenty of indications that this is indeed teen fare. The story takes place in fictional Panem, which was formed from the ashes of a United States destroyed by a series of natural and man-made disasters. Panem consists of a very rich cosmopolitan Capitol, surrounded by 13 Districts – until civil war between Capitol and Districts destroys the 13th District. The choice of 13 original colonies – sorry, I mean districts – is clearly not at all obvious or contrived.

The love interest manages to be even more influenced by outside events, and consequently confusing, than even the average 16-year-old crush. Our heroine is pushed into a relationship in the hopes it will give her a better chance of survival, then left to wonder for the next month whether the guy’s affection is real, whether she can trust him, or whether this was all a clever idea to get her to lower her guard so he can more easily kill her.

And Battle Royale it is not. Of over 20 deaths, we’re present for five (four extremely quick and lacking in gore) and know the cause of four more (three of which are of natural causes). The others happen entirely off-screen. The point of the book is not to give us a bloodbath for the sake of it, but to make us understand that physical violence follows from mental violence, and that injustice is a form of violence.

In that context, I offer two reviews from the author’s website that I particularly like:

The Hunger Games and Catching Fire [the second book in the trilogy] expose children to exactly the kind of violence we usually shield them from. But that just goes to show how much adults forget about what it’s like to be a child. Kids are physical creatures, and they’re not stupid. They know all about violence and power and raw emotions. What’s really scary is when adults pretend that such things don’t exist [or, one might add, turn them into cheap entertainment].


“…readers will instinctively understand what Katniss knows in her soul, that war mixes all the slogans and justifications, the deceptions and plans, the causes and ideals into an unsavory stew whose taste brings madness.”

Indeed, if being good requires as a first step filling one’s mind with good things, the book provides plenty of examples to choose from. Self-sacrifice, generosity, gratitude, loyalty, outgoing concern and love are really what drives the book forward.

In short, if the next two books in the Hunger Games series are as good, this series will join Betsy-Tacy on the list of books I want on my shelf should I ever have children.

One thought on “December Book Review: Teen Fiction

  1. I didn’t even know that the Betsy-Tacy series went on into high school! I am amazed–I’ll have to check those out, and thank you. I also love (some) stories from a more innocent period. There is a book I have had since I was in 4th grade which I have read many times–it is titled Rosemary. It is a story about a young lady–about 13 I believe–who is in a family that loves each other but is having problems right at that moment and her mother is in the hospital. I love it because the heroine is a real-life girl, faced with the need to bear more responsibility than usual with her younger sisters, with real-life decisions to make, with real-life consequences–but in the context of a loving older brother’s help. It is told during a more innocent period, as you discuss in your post, but it still has an allure even now.

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