A Rant about Teen Fiction

Look, I know this is not about theology, or Moltmann, or the church, or even parenting. So feel free to abstain from reading my rant-y post.

On Friday, I read The Hunger Games on the flight home. On Saturday, I bought the next two books in the series and finished them over the weekend. Clearly, I found the story compelling. And certainly, I appreciated the escape into a different kind of world…even if that world was confronting all the same problems that haunt us here (power, violence) in ways that were often grotesque. Maybe another day I’ll blab on about what I thought about the actual content of The Hunger Games. However I have a much bigger concern that could not help but creep up over and over as I read these pages: why is teen fiction worse than children’s fiction? How can that possibly be?!

If you don’t believe me, I submit the following:

Exhibit A: Teen fiction often does not use complete sentences. Do you have any idea how many choppy, weird phrases and words are littered on every page? It’s like a grammatical bomb hit it, and pieces lay all over the place, splayed out here and there. I seriously cannot understand why the authors cannot bring a few of these sad little fragments together by using perfectly nice things called conjunctions, or commas, or semicolons. I honestly had to read a few paragraphs over again because the grammar made such little sense.

I will spare you a rant about how Twitter and blogs and text messaging is ruining our ability to communicate in complete sentences. However, I am TERRIFIED that it’s also ruining our ability to THINK in complete sentences.

Exhibit B: I honestly think the characters in teen fiction are far less nuanced and complex. I think this is almost exclusively because the authors, rather than showing you something about the character through actions or dialogue, just flat out TELL you what the character is thinking. This may be the most jarring thing of all, this straightforward, knock-you-over-with-my-authorial-intent sort of style. It’s the difference between sitting down to dinner with someone and inferring thoughts about him/her based on the flow of the evening and sitting down to dinner with someone who just tells you who they are, straight and without break, all the way through dessert.

I realized that I could skim The Hunger Games, because the words didn’t really matter that much. I was using the words as a means to an end, to get to the next plot twist and find out what happened to Peeta. There was no savoring, or paying attention. You didn’t need to feel the cadence of the thing. You just needed to know what happened next. Maybe this is why sometimes these books are improved upon in movie form (which is never, ever the case for good literature, in my estimation). At least you see a sideways glance or sense a mood when you watch it on screen. The book practically barks military orders of action sequences at you.

In contrast, the children’s books I’ve read this year (The Invention of Hugo Cabret, The Mysterious Benedict Society) are well written. The stories are rich and the characters are three dimensional. I did not feel, as a reader, beaten over the head with the author’s intent. The world that was created was more full and whole and lyrical.

So why is it, when it would seem to make good common sense for books to become more complex as the reader gets more mature, do we see such hackneyed, flat and prosaic teen literature? Well, clearly they sell just fine. (I mean, honestly, Stephenie Meyer would likely fail English class in college but she’s made millions…as an AUTHOR.) And obviously, even adults are willing to read them. But when I think about my ten year old graduating up from Hugo and Harry Potter to this brand of shove-in-your-face, grammatically choppy literature, I’d just as soon convince her to stick with the classics. Later, when she’s old enough to know how to spot truly good literature, she can take a foray into The Hunger Games arena for kicks. But Lord, let’s not send our teens there without giving them a good rule of thumb for judging a book: if you’re reading it to enjoy the story and the way the story is told, it’s literature. If you’re reading it not for the words itself but for the basic plot, it’s teen fiction, and should be consumed sparingly.


  1. Totally agree.

    (Wait, did I just use a fragment?!? Gasp!)

    All joking aside, I agree that too much of teen “literature” lacks substance and that the Information Age has made proper spelling and grammar more ambiguous. Of course, fragments don’t bother me that much (even though I’m a real grammar nazi), because, after all, our thoughts aren’t complete sentences. But yes, sooner or later we need structure and coherence.

    And don’t get me started on Twilight and its ilk…:-)

  2. Scott MillerFebruary 7, 2012 at 3:27 pm

    As someone who has done some writing and even had some short things published, I have mixed feelings about your first point. In the words of Elmore Leonard, if I’m writing a sentence and the grammar is getting in the way, then the grammar has to go. The most important thing in writing is to get your point across; if the rules hinder you then they are to be ignored. Rules are made to bring order to chaos, not to limit expresssion. Also, there’s a poetry to prose, and sometimes a complete sentence may throw off the rhythm. However, that does not excuse writing with complete abandon. Again, the point of writing is to get your point across, so if your coolness or your style is getting in the way, then the style has to go.

    I can’t comment on the rest, as I have not read any juvenile or teen fiction in many years.

    P.S. Plz 4giv any errors. im doing this on my fone.

  3. Scott- I think you would see what I mean if you read some teen fiction. I don’t think it’s a matter of style here and there, a choice to withhold grammar with some literary intention. I do that myself, and I find it completely appropriate. The difference is that in these books, the whole entire novel reads this way. It doesn’t come across to me as the voice of a character, but as the voice of an author who is trying to get the point across as directly and quickly as possible before the audience loses interest and starts playing Angry Birds. You should take the copy of Hunger Games off the Journey shelf and tell me what you think. :)

  4. Patrick KangrgaApril 10, 2012 at 1:42 am

    So, I actually just wrote a review on this. I am going to post it on here in full. Not to be ironic, but I am atrocious at grammar and thats why I have an editor plus add to that its a first draft just finished. But my main point as far as your concerns is in the last couple paragraphs. But I feel free to read it all.

    I am an elitist, this I have no problem admitting. I try not to let it interfere with my daily life, but I find that arrogance rears its ugly head more often than I would like. I look on some pretty girls Facebook page and see that her reading includes the monthly issue of Cosmo. Oh great, a girl who is literate and uses her reading to bone up on the latest sex move to try out while flying on a Boeing 747 from Poughkeepsie to Portland. But, I actually like to read real books. And I am actually a fan of movies adapted from books, which brings me to the subject at hand, the Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins. I recently saw the movie not having read the books. God knows that was a challenge considering that ever since the announcement of the movie teeny boppers, young adults, and adults wondering about all the hub-bub have probably sky rocketed book sells much to Collin’s delight. I feel like not having read the Hunger Games is the greatest cultural sin I’ve committed since not joining Twitter. But, to my chagrin, the movie broke me and I could no longer avoid the phenomenon that is the Hunger Games. To prove my point, I got out of the movie on a Saturday around 11pm, went home and ruminated, and finally at 1am forced myself to Wal-Mart and bought all three books. And I really don’t like fads, so this should tell you something

    So for those who are much like me that is living under a rock for the last few months or longer considering the Hunger Games made its literary debut in 2008, here’s the low down. Imagine, if you will, North America has collapsed, and let’s not be afraid to admit it…In this day and age, collapse of the hegemon of the free-world seems more like impending fact rather than unimaginable fiction. The raise of a controlling state known as the Capitol (no more generic and yet ominous of a name could have been invented) has risen to power over 13 outlying districts. Eventually, the 13th district rebels at this point in the story for an unknown reason. No doubt something to do with ideals, liberties, and the general things mankind will rebel for or against. A long bloody war ensues the ones we know all too well again more fact then fiction. Eventually the rebellion is quelled and the Capitol reigns supreme. And to honor the loss of life and to prevent such future rebellion, the Capitol decrees a treaty that calls for something called the, Hunger Games. And this is just the intro to a book and movie filled with action, adventure, and political intrigues. A necessary prologue to set up a story filled with suspense, twists and turns. A prologue that no doubt would be elaborated and expanded on in the books that followed.
    So what are these so called Hunger Games. A tribute, really better described as an offering or a sacrifice like those the likes of a Vestal virgin in Ancient Rome or choice livestock in the Hebrew tradition, and to be honest, it’s hard not to compare this supposed fictional society with real societies we have known throughout history. Like the Romans, the people’s bloodlust is sated by a game, but instead of adults, a game between twenty-four young men and women between the age of 12 and 18. Children have become the tools of war and thereby the maintainers of peace. All the time, while people are entertained, they forget they are starving and oppressed. Religion, Karl Marx said, is the opiate of the masses, but Marx never lived in the era of the Coliseum, the Superdome, or in this case, the Hunger Games.
    And, at this point, I feel I should say I have perhaps an unnatural love for these post-apocalyptical type stories. All stories like this and there are plenty others that are similar. An exemplar would be the Japanese book and movie Battle Royale, which is without contest far more gruesome…For as fantastical as they may seem, they are actually believable. In a world that knew Rome, in a not so long ago time that gave rise to Hitler, can we really say this kind of world is impossible. Or do we have to face facts, even the facts presented in fiction and say…I could see this happening.
    But I digress , the real action of the story begins with the annual drawing of the names of the tributes, a boy and a girl from the 12 remaining districts as the 13th district was utterly destroyed. District 12 basically a coal mining town in the area formerly known as the Appalachians is the bottom of the rung, really a disgrace. They have had one winner in many years and that winner is now a drunkard by the name of Haymitch, a slightly humorous character, if only in that way that pitiful people are funny meaning not funny at all but such a depressing sight that we can only laugh to ease the tension of their obvious issues. Yet, Woody Harrelson portrays a surprisingly, subtly tragic character perhaps overwhelmed by the deeds he committed in his own Hunger Games and plagued by the continual reminder of it due to having to mentor the tributes from District 12 so that they might, just might survive the same fate he did.
    Now comes the announcement and most dramatic moment of the story. Effie Trinket, a classic society girl from the Capitol with dyed white skin and neon colored hair played in the movie by an unrecognizable Elizabeth Banks comes out and draws the names, “Ladies first…” as she says as if there is some real sense of decorum in this brutish act. And the name, “Primrose Everdeen”, the main character, Katniss’ sister is called. Of course, no one lets their baby sister go to face this kind of fate and like a sacrificial lamb, Katniss volunteers in her place. I have read other articles that claim this as a metaphor for the Christian Faith. Katniss’ act is like that of Christ dying upon the cross. I’m a devout Chrisitian, but I don’t like to read Faith into things in fear that I might believe in something that was always faithless. I think at the root of this, it is simply the act of a sister for a sister. Yes, rooted in the sacrificial love akin to Christ death, but I doubt Collins is evangelizing here. And I doubt that we can call the Hunger Games, a very adequate allegory for the Christian Faith. It’s no Chronicles of Narnia and even taking the best of Collins writing, she is no C.S. Lewis.
    And I will end with the storyline by saying this; there is some violence and gore, of course, and obviously a bit of a love story. I don’t want to ruin anything for anyone. So go watch it and/or read it.
    This movie was actually quite good. As far as film making, it was well written probably because the author co-wrote the script, and she has written scripts for television and movies before. So, she has an eye for what the viewer is looking for and masterfully adapted the book for the big screen. I will say at times the shaky camera during fight scenes that supposedly gave a sense of realism only made my stomach turn over. I like the sense of being involved that way, but it felt contrived and unnecessary. No one goes to a movie for realism, per say. If we wanted that we would watch documentaries or film our own lives and play them back…Those are about as shaky as anything gets. But outside of that, the movie was well paced and the acting was good. The cast was speckled with gems like Harrelson who has come a long way from such movies the likes of King Pin and Dumb and Dumber to prove himself more than a capable actor even in the form of an elusive, almost one-dimensional character in the Hunger Games.
    The only downside as far as adaptation goes was that characterization and background was lost just a bit due to time constraints and necessity for a coherent movie. The book develops this back story for Katniss and Peeta, the male tribute from District 12. Peeta seems like a bit of sissy in the movie whereas he is a bit more brave and courageous and thoughtful in the book. And the movie presented certain things from the book that really without knowing the story you would never have any idea what they meant. But again, the movie adheres to the book well. And the movie in its self, which is how you must see any movie adapted from a book as…a piece of art of its own and this art is well crafted and more than worth the watch.
    Collins based the plot off of the myth of the Labyrinth. A king offers tributes of seven brave boys and seven beautiful ladies to commemorate a war. Clearly, the makings of a great plotline, and part of Collins genius in storytelling is seeing the story and modernizing it. Collins says that she likes to right about the things we deal with in everyday life; war, death, and corruption. It is admirable that she does it for young adults. Most of us, think young adults are more young then adults and aren’t ready to deal with the realities of the world. Or worse, we play naïve and try to shield them from it all pretending as if children are less perceptive then they really are. I suppose this is why I admire Collins work in the Hunger Games much like J.K. Rowling, she has raised the bar for young adult literature. Making it akin, far from, but akin to what we would consider real, adult literature. And doing it quite well.
    The Hunger Games by no means will win a Pulitzer or get Collins a Nobel and the movie isn’t going to win best picture, but there is a prize in them both. The prize of a story that can live in the hearts of children…A story that teaches children about the real world without trying to demolition their hopes.
    I consider often if I will ever be blessed to have children. I wonder how I will teach them about the realities of our world. That we all die, that there are corrupted wolves desiring to pull the wool over innocent sheep’s eyes, that government does not always do what is best for us, and that money is the root of all kinds of evil. But still educate them in the ways of hope, of remaining their own person and retaining their humanity always even in the do-or-die situations…Maintaining forever a sense of morality and respect for human dignity. Hunger Games both the movie and book as brutal and probably in many ways inappropriate for children (I don’t know if I would let my kids, if I had any see the movie) is really a wonderful tale of truth and reality, and of hope for a better future.
    Our children should never be without hope, and maybe, we need to watch these types of movies and read these types of books because adults can be forgetful. After all, how often do we get caught up in being an adult and discount the gifts of our childhood as silly naiveté. There is a real power and value for living in our ability to hope, in the ability to dream even in the face of defeat. We always can use that reminder in our lives for our sake and our children’s sake. And perhaps that’s why these stories are simple and simply told, told as if by a child or young adult. Sometimes we make things harder than they are. And when a message is simply and effectively presented in fact or in fiction (for we sometimes learn best from metaphor), that message can be understood more easily and absorbed into our daily living in a truly palatable way.

  5. Nothing beats a movie and popcorn after work.

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