Yes, It’s True. I Let My 10-Year-Old Read “The Hunger Games”


By Lisa Dalesandro/@abookmama
Author of “Raise a Reader: 25 Effective Ways to Get Kids Reading”

Literacy and the Hunger Games

         The whole dilemma started in ballet class. My daughter is part of a dance company comprised of girls between the ages of 9 and 16.  It was those darn teenagers that got us into trouble. 

         Apparently in the dressing room, the older girls had been talking excitedly about how much they love “The Hunger Games” by Suzanne Collins (a book the publishers recommend for 7th grade and up) and how eager they were to see the upcoming film.  Naturally, this made my little 4th grader desperate to see what all the fuss was about.

        As soon as she asked me if she could read the book, I had one of those parental moments where time and space instantly freeze.  You know what I’m talking about, that split second where your brain shifts into high gear trying to work out the correct response before your child gets a whiff of your fear and the fact that you really don’t have a clue.

         The trouble is I’d already read the book, so instinctively I felt pretty sure she needed to wait a couple years.  Just in case you aren’t one of those people like me who loves children’s and young adult literature way more than a grown person should, the trilogy is basically a brutal, dystopian nightmare of a tale about children forced to fight to the death on live TV.  How’s that for a dark and troubling concept?

         I even got a concerned phone call from her fantastic 4th grade teacher, a guy who’s done more than any previous teacher to encourage her to discover the joys of reading.  No surprise he’d also read the book and wanted to alert me to the fact that she was telling the other kids in class she was going to start reading the book, like, any second now.  

         Okay, so this should be a no-brainer.  I’d just put my foot down, exercise my parental power of veto and refuse to let her read it.  But here’s the thing — and a half-a-zillion teenagers will back me up on this one — the books are fun.  Plain and simple.  They’re a blast.  The series is a highly entertaining, fast-paced, rapid action, futuristic fable pitting good against evil.  And, c’mon people, there’s a reason that’s basically the recipe for a runaway hit.

         But, for me, there was another complication.   A nagging secondary factor was nudging me toward letting her crack it open.  See, my child has not been a strong reader up until recently.  Despite living in a house with two voracious readers – her mother a reader of books and her father a reader of computer manuals, frivolous techno blogs and other nonsense – she didn’t seem the least inclined to become a reader herself.  And the more we pushed, the more she resisted.

         To make matters worse, I’d started doing a little research and was startled by what I learned.  Of course we all know that reading is important.  I mean, like, duh?  But I had no idea how super, amazingly, incredibly important it actually is to basically everything your child will ever need in life.

         There is a veritable mountain of literacy research out there scrutinizing, quantifying and analyzing the amazing power of reading.  Turns out raising a child who reads for pleasure may be the secret weapon to academic success, sky high standardized test scores, entrance to Ivy League institutions and general life happiness.  Okay, maybe that’s a little over-stated, but reading for pleasure is still really important. 

         Here’s what the research actually shows –

         Kids who are strong independent readers do better in ALL subjects in school including science and math.  They have stronger vocabularies and perform better in spelling and grammar than kids in lower literacy categories.  Kids who read for pleasure are more creative, becoming stronger writers.  Reading also builds concentration, focus and memory.

         Strong readers have more self-esteem because reading builds confidence and confidence is one of those elusive qualities that builds self-esteem.  They also develop a stronger sense of cultural awareness and history because novels have the unique ability to immerse the reader in unfamiliar lands, cultures and eras.

     A study done by Anderson, Wilson, and Fielding (1988), considered one of the benchmark study in literacy, looked at the out-of-school reading habits of children in 5th grade.  The kids kept reading logs estimating how many minutes of reading they did per day.  The study found that children in the 95th percentile read an average of an hour a day.  While children in the 50th percentile read under 5 minutes a day outside of the classroom. 

     The kids in the 90th percentile read on average 21 minutes a day, which translated to 1.8 million words per year.  Compare this to children in the 50th percentile who read just 4.6 minutes a day, which totaled 280,000 words per year.  That’s nearly 1.5 million fewer words that the kids in the 90th percentile.  So in just over 15 measly little minutes a day, the top 10% of the children were reading 6.4 times more.

     That means in just 2 days of average reading — or, say, a weekend — the kids in the top 90th percentile were reading the equivalent to a whole year’s worth of reading for kids in the bottom 10th percentile.

         Armed with this knowledge, you better have a really good reason to say no to a book when a child who does not love reading comes to you begging and pleading to read said book.  And, of course, there are all sorts of books I would forbid, telling her absolutely no, no way, no how. 

         But I wasn’t totally convinced that “The Hunger Games” should be one of those books.

         So we struck a deal.  She could read the book at home (not at school) but we’d discuss it every day to see how she was feeling about the story and characters.  After a couple days of discussion, where I once again repeated my concern that perhaps this book was too dark and scary, she rolled her eyes and said firmly mom, it’s just a story

         She’s right.  It’s just a story.   A story she devoured in 4 days.  Every spare moment, her nose was buried in that book.  Isn’t this exactly what I had been longing for?  Indeed it is.  Thank you Suzanne Collins and your Hunger Games. 

         Now a few days before the film opens, my daughter is nearly halfway done with the third and final book in “The Hunger Games” trilogy.  She’s been wearing a Katniss braid for the last week and already has plans to see the film on Friday after school.  This despite her best efforts to get me to let her go to the Thursday midnight show with those darn teenage girls from dance.  I said no to the midnight show but did offer to compromise and, in the spirit of the book, send her to bed hungry on Thursday night.  She opted for the Friday afternoon show instead.  See, reading is already making her smarter.

(Lisa Dalesandro is the author of the upcoming book “Read to Succeed: 25 Ways to Get Kids Reading“)