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Dreaming of Hogwarts and Hunger Games

By posted at 6:00 am on September 16, 2010 16

When I was twelve, I read a lot.  I read novels in the cafeteria over chicken patties while my friends traded folded-paper fortune tellers, and I read novels on the bus ride home while my friends relocated to seats with travelers who would talk to them.  I read novels while I walked home from the bus stop, and for half hour stretches in the bathroom until my legs had fallen asleep.  There never seemed a good point at which to put down the book, pull up my pants and relocate to a chair, so I stayed seated.

coverThe books I read today can still inspire this total preoccupation, but more rarely.  Often, I only have an allotted hour or so to read before I have to turn off my light and play slave to my impending alarm clock.  My “real” life is never far from mind; reading is just a part of my day. But last night I lay in bed with Mockingjay, the third installment of Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games series, not reading but devouring the book, transported not only to the fictional world of Panem, but to the years when I always read like this: flopping from back to stomach as the hours passed, jumping at every creak of the house, and finishing late, late at night, reluctant to release my hands from the book and a delicious disorientation that would be gone by morning.

coverMy former self understands these feelings, and happily, so does my cousin’s son, Will.  I know he reads like this because I’ve seen him, shooing his football-toting friends away at the beach because he can’t abandon Harry, Ron and Hermione at such a crucial moment.  He’s got an English-teacher-turned-college-professor for a mom, and an older brother tossing worn copies of The Golden Compass and Percy Jackson his way, so he’s been reading for a while now, and he’s got discriminating taste.  He’s the recent recipient of Cedar Mountain Primary School’s Accelerated Reader Award, but the prize is incidental.  Kid’s got a love of the game.

covercoverWith Twilight and The Hunger Games securing a vast readership among the young and older, Will and I are not an anomaly as we sit and excitedly discuss Harry Potter, he ten and me twenty-three.  As we’re working our way from The Sorcerer’s Stone to The Deathly Hallows with great attention to both cherished and forgotten detail, he’s the book-club I didn’t have as a twelve year old Madeline L’Engle addict.  We started talking because I was hoping to glean a few book recommendations from him to write about, and so I’m taking notes.  Exhibiting his careful attention to fellow readers and his strong loyalty to story, our conversation is punctuated by uncertain pauses preceding each recounting of a momentous plot twist.  “I don’t know if you should write this in case anyone hasn’t read it yet,” Will warns me.

That is one of the great appeals of young adult literature: there is so much plot to spoil.  Storytelling is paramount here, and the sheer imagination of the author is so awesome that enjoyment overpowers any hint of farfetchedness.  And while, yes, the Harry Potter books are about wizards, our own Muggle concerns are reflected in the struggle of good against evil, and the difficulty we sometimes have distinguishing the two.  In the spirit of C.S. Lewis, the best young adult fiction today embraces universal themes and compelling moral ambiguity.  These stories captivate our attention because they are adventures in the deeper dramas that inform human experience.  They are life and death stripped of daily distraction.

As we sit over a hardcover copy of Harry Potter and the Half Blood Prince, Will and I try to articulate what we love about this series and about The Hunger Games. It is difficult to express the emotionally charged relinquishing of reality and the fervor and flush that comes with truly inhabiting a fictional world.  “Just the idea of the book,” he shrugs, stumped. “Just the story.”

With imaginative and driving plots that are both similar and alien to your everyday world, in the really good books, the characters are rich and complicated, but when they are not, it doesn’t really matter.  They are doing, and you are reading as fast as you can.

Of course, one of the reasons you can read this fast is that the language doesn’t always delight your synapses or persuade you to kick off your shoes and stay awhile.  When I’m reading Collins’ writing, I’m not savoring a sentence like I do when I’m reading Michael Chabon.  The plainspoken pulse of The Hunger Games doesn’t beg a reread like the poetry of The God of Small Things, or set you still like a scene of Cormac McCarthy’s.  But I’m not reading Mockingjay for those reasons.  I’m reading to find out whether the Capitol mutations bred deliberately to hunt Katniss are going to tear her to pieces before she manages to kill President Snow.

Books hinging on this level of intensity burn a haze that muddles your Muggle world and your Hogwarts world.  As in a dream, you have no difficulty surrendering to the unrealities: the story holds you.  Sometimes it holds you merely until an unwelcome interruption by your real life, but sometimes it lingers after the book is closed, unwilling to be relegated back to fiction.  Young Will confesses to me that Harry Potter’s unlikely entrance into wizardry clung to him in this way.  “I was really hoping that when I turned eleven I would be found to be a wizard.  I felt that it was so real.  I thought that maybe J.K. Rowling was a wizard… and I kept on feeling that. But then, after I read the next series that I really liked, I didn’t feel that anymore, and I knew that it was definitely, one hundred percent fake.  But… it really seemed real.  The whole way.”

The yearning in Will’s voice brings me back to my own youthful reading of the Harry Potter books, with a swift and sudden nostalgic ache.  For Will isn’t yet eleven, and the force with which he instructs me on the odds against his dormant wizardry has the hardness of a person reprimanding himself for a foolishness.  He isn’t waiting for his eleventh birthday.  He knows better.  But maybe this is why reading these YA books can be such a wholly captivating experience for adults.  We have no choice but to surrender our reasons to the terrors and beauties of a make-believe world.  And it really seems real.





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16 Responses to “Dreaming of Hogwarts and Hunger Games”

  1. Sarah
    at 7:36 am on September 16, 2010

    Oh, it is so good to hear about kids reading, like your cousin. Though I have to admit that even though I’m 26 and read Harry Potter at 18+, I still wished I could get a Hogwarts letter! And I entertained the thought that JKR could be a Muggle. In the same way, sometimes I like to think that Gene Roddenberry of Star Trek frame might be from the future. :) We all need a little magical hope in us.

  2. Levi Muller
    at 9:26 am on September 16, 2010

    I absolutely loved your post. It seems that my bookshelves fill quickly with YA titles for many of the reasons you’ve stated. I’m 35 and loved reading the Hunger Games, Harry Potter, Percy Jackson, and a bundle of others.

  3. Emily
    at 10:33 am on September 16, 2010

    Your essay has pretty much captured the reason I’m in training to be a children’s /YA librarian. There’s no time in our lives when reading means quite as much as it does during adolescence, and talking with younger readers about those book is so exciting! And like you said, there are lots of wonderful books being written for middle grade readers. It doesn’t mean I don’t read “adult” stuff, but that the way I read those books, and the things I take from them, are drastically different.

  4. mary
    at 10:49 am on September 16, 2010

    I can relate to much of this (though I was, in the end, extremely disappointed by the Potter books – loved the first five, but the last two lost me), and it’s great that Will is such an enthusiastic and thoughtful reader. Since I”m a librarian, I ‘d like to recommend a few truly excellent series you may not yet have gotten into:
    1. The Chronicles of Ancient Darkness, by Michelle Paver, starting with “Wolf Brother“. Set 6 thousand years ago in northern Europe, where a young boy discovers that he must finish a battle against evil that began before he was born. Beautifully written and deeply imagined, though grim. My sister (also a librarian) and i consider Paver the Kipling of the 21st century.
    2. The Bartimaeus Trilogy, by Jonathan Stroud. What the Potter books could and should have been.
    3. The Queen’s Thief series, by Megan Whalen Turner. Warning: these are adult books in the guise of a young adult series. Will might not be ready yet for the second through the fourth, but the first one (the Thief) is a blast, and you might both like it.
    4. The “Evil Genius” trilogy, by Catherine Jinks. Another very gifted young boy struggling to find his own moral compass -and cybercrime, disguises, evil scientists, genetic mutations, and lots of action.

    And there are lots more! I hope you may enjoy some of these as much as you’ve enjoyed the other books you mentioned. (And I hope you don’t mind the plugs. :))

    Oh, and how could I forget Kate Thompson! and Hilari Bell, and Catherine Fisher, and Eion Colfer, and Nancy Farmer,, and. . .

  5. Jennifer Jones
    at 11:35 am on September 16, 2010

    You’ve perfectly articulated the difference between how I felt reading books as an adolescent and how I feel reading books on an intellectual “adult” level. I hadn’t even recognized it until reading this post – but what I long for and value in books is not the carefully wrought phrase or delicate observation of a human moment. In other words, I don’t love books for the reasons that book reviewers love books. I love books that, as you said, blur the line between “me, sitting in chair, staring at paper” and the me that is experiencing the world inside the book.

    I read because it makes my life infinitely bigger. It makes me believe more. That can only be a good thing! Thank you for putting it so well.

  6. This Week: Literary Doppelgangers, "Drunk" Twitter Fiction & More | Lit Drift: Storytelling in the 21st Century
    at 5:55 pm on September 16, 2010

    [...] The Millions sums up my childhood (and adult) reading experiences exactly. [...]

  7. Elle Carroll
    at 1:14 am on September 17, 2010

    I read, and write, YA because much of it “embraces universal themes and compelling moral” problems. The quality of the writing, I claim, often urges us “savor” the sentences. Put simply, some of the best writing in modern literature is between the covers of YA books. – Lisa Elle Carroll

  8. Kelly Wood
    at 2:12 pm on September 17, 2010

    Reading this aroused my yearning to return to formidable Camazotz with Meg Murray and Mrs. Whatsit. I smile remembering the book light Dad bought me when he found the “secret flashlight” under my pillow, and ache recalling Post-Harry-Potter-Depression being forced back to muggle world.

  9. David A. Bedford
    at 7:45 pm on September 17, 2010

    Madeleine L’Engle’s “A Wrinkle In Time” was the first book I started and never put down till I reached the end. I was 15. I finished reading at 3:00 am (I had started at 9:00). Nothing else has ever taken me quite like that.

    Please visit my blog and leave a comment. Thanks!

  10. Joan Kremer
    at 8:47 pm on September 17, 2010

    I happened to be home alone this past Labor Day weekend and decided to check out Hunger Games because of the buzz about Mockingjay. I ended up reading all three books of that trilogy with breaks only for eating and sleeping that weekend–something I haven’t done since I was in high school! I haven’t read many YA novels, other than the Harry Potter series, for many years, but that weekend with the Hunger Games was one of the best I’ve spent in eons! I’d forgotten how compelling and fascinating YA novels can be. Thanks for articulating that in your post. (And my first all-engrossing YA novel was also A Wrinkle in Time–still one of my all-time favorite books.)

  11. hanie
    at 1:24 pm on September 18, 2010

    I agree with everything you wrote. Thank you for articulating it so clearly! I’m 27 and I finished the Hunger Games trilogy in 5 days. Meaning I read the books even while I was at work. :)

  12. margosita
    at 5:26 pm on September 18, 2010

    This is a great essay and has made me me reconsider a lot of YA thoughts. I tend to get really turned off by the “YA” label, yet I will swallow books that fit into the genre whole, just for the pleasure of a well laid plot.

  13. Sally
    at 2:08 am on September 20, 2010

    I’m 20 and can’t give up reading YA. I’m from Australia and one of the best Australian series for young adults is the Tomorrow, When the War Began series by John Marsden, which are action packed and I read each book in one night until the early hours. But after Harry Potter my favourite YA comes from Tamora Pierce. I’ve read almost all of her novels with fantasy and strong female characters it’s great for young teenage girls to read. Now I’m going to get into the Hunger Games after reading these posts!

  14. Books & Authors » Daily Lit Links for 9/20
    at 10:52 am on September 27, 2010

    [...] for turning pages past your bedtime), check out Carolyn Ross’s post on the Millions, “Dreaming of Hogwarts and Hunger Games.”  Ross reflects on her childhood reading habits, when plot drove stories and it was [...]

  15. Casey Fox
    at 1:53 pm on October 21, 2010

    I am still waiting for my Hogwarts letter, and I’m well over 11!
    Will (and you) should check out Patrick Ness’s Chaos Walking series. I was on vacation with my in laws this summer, and so rarely put down these books that I’m pretty sure they are still offended. I don’t regret it- the stories were much more important!
    This was beautifully written, and put into words many things that I’ve been aching to say but didn’t know how. Thank you.

  16. Christian J. Perez
    at 7:27 pm on January 29, 2011

    What magic!. To be in two realities at once. Your body here safe in bed. While your heart beats just a little faster with just a hint of adrenaline as you run for your life along with Katniss in the reality of your mind. Thank you so much for remind us of the magic that is a good book. No other form of entertainment quite compares to a good book that lets you travel a million miles away to world that moves with the beating of your heart. You leave your book to grab a snack and come back to find the characters suspended in time waiting for you to continue reading. You did an awesome job and thank you for sharing your story and family with us.

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