Wednesday, April 11, 2012

Why YA? How the Hunger Games changed my life by Sara Ansted

As part of our Why YA? series, guest blogger Sara Ansted shares how the Hunger Games reached into her chest, pulled out her heart and changed the way she views the world we live in.  Sara actually has the honor of being our first Why YA? post but don't worry, you can write about a book that touched you.  Just follow the link to learn how.

I know what you’re thinking. Not another post about The Hunger Games. I totally understand. But this isn’t a story about The Hunger Games. It’s a story about how YA fiction can literally change lives.  

The premise:

Katniss lives in district 12. Like most of the districts, they are destitute. Think depression era mining towns. The capitol, on the other hand, is high-tech, wealthy, vain, and in complete control of everything.

Katniss is constantly one step away from starving to death while the citizens in the capitol glut them selves at feasts, pop some meds that make them puke it all up, and then go back for more. While Katniss is thinking about where her next meal might come from, the capitol yuppies are getting their hair styled and their skin dyed.

But that’s not bad enough. This year she becomes a tribute in the Hunger Games. For capitol citizens, the Hunger Games are the big entertainment event each year. A televised death-match, where kids are thrown into an arena to kill each other.

24 go in. One comes out.

Ancient Rome all over again.

When a book changes your life.

Every major book is going to have its revilers. For Harry Potter, it was the witchcraft thing. For The Hunger Games it happens to be the brutal combat-to-the-death of 24 teenagers. Some go as far as to call the book “spiritually damaging.”

For obvious reasons, I understand where they're coming from. But I heartily disagree.

Yes, the plot is disturbing. But that is just what happens, not what the book is about. It's about kids who have to be strong to survive in a hard world. It's about people standing up for their rights. It's about a girl who would offer herself up for certain death, just to protect her little sister.

We could talk for hours on all that. But there's more. Something that I think we often forget, but I hope I never will. Not after last June.

It started at a camping trip. Even though it was June, the air was freezing. It was too dark to do anything but cluster around the fire and hang out. As usual, I was the awkward one. Wanting fit in with the group, but too shy to make it work. After a while, I finally gave up. Out came the book.

People were having fun all around me, and I didn’t even notice. My flashlight batteries were dying. The firelight wasn’t close enough to read by, let alone warm me up. There I was, huddled on a bench in the middle of the forest, wearing only shorts and a hoodie. I was freezing and squinting, but I couldn’t tear my eyes away from the page.

The thing is, I’d read it before. It was then that I started to realize just how awesome it was. You know a book is quality when it’s even better the second time around. Plus, reading The Hunger Games in the middle of a forest with no cell signal and a dying flashlight – well, let’s just call it epic.

The afternoon after a camp out is a pretty standard time for a good nap. And I was tired. I’d spent half my night reading, and the other half freezing. But I didn’t nap. I just read. And read. I already knew the characters and what was going to happen, but I still spent the whole time covering my face and wishing that it would change. Sadly, it didn't. Things still happened, and I still cried.

When the book ended, I didn’t know what to do with myself. Emotionally, I was a mess. (Physically too, I suppose. I was still covered in dirt and leaves from the night in the woods.) As usual when I finish a great book, I just needed some time to process it.

But I’m a multi-tasker. I needed something unobtrusive to do while I sorted my brain out. So I hopped in the car and started driving.

I hadn’t eaten, so I drove past Wendy’s. Past Arby’s. Past the Malt Shoppe. But I didn’t want any of it, which was weird. I drove past CafĂ© Rio and didn’t want that either, which was weirder. Eventually I ended up at Walmart. 

When I walked through the first door I was suddenly hit with a wave of disgust. Flashy labels. Neon lights. I was violently assaulted by the sheer commercialism. (And that was just the drink machines in the entry way.)

I have to be honest, I almost turned around and walked back out then and there. But I really needed groceries. You know, that whole needing to eat thing. So I made myself keep walking. I grabbed a cart. I went through the second door.

And I stopped dead in my tracks.

Piles of food. Literally. High quality, disease free, pre-harvested piles of food, stacked there for anyone who wanted it. Dozens of racks with shirts and pants and jackets and socks. Aisles filled with the most advanced toys a kid could ask for. Video games, movies, cell phones, cameras, TVs, laptops.

I couldn’t walk. I couldn’t speak. I just stared, absolutely dumbfounded.

And then there were the people. Girls walked past sporting the latest fashions. Guys talked about video games and computers. Kids threw tantrums because they wanted a certain cereal. All of them bemoaning the terrible, horrible, no-good, very bad lives that they were forced to endure. And all of them completely oblivious to the sheer abundance around them.

I felt sick. Actually physically sick. All I could think was, “This is the capitol. We live in the capitol.”

There really aren't any words that convey the depth of my revulsion for the society in which I found myself. Suffice it to say that I was shocked in a way that I have never been shocked before.

Isn't it scary? How different are we really? Suzanne Collins might have exaggerated a bit when she wrote the Capitol citizens. But only a bit. A very little bit.

As I stood there, I had a few choices. I wanted to collapse to the floor in hysterical tears. I also wanted to run through the aisles, shaking people and screaming “Don’t you people get it?!” I wanted to wear a sandwich board and picket the front of the store. I wanted to write on the walls in 50 foot letters “You’re not starving. You’re not naked. So shut up about your stupid, petty inconveniences.”

Fortunately I’m not quite that crazy, since most of those things would have gotten me arrested.

The drive home was no better. New cars were everywhere. And in them were furious people. Honking, shouting, punching the steering wheel. Why? Because the person in front of them was going the wrong speed, or they didn’t accelerate from 0 to 90 the instant the light turned green. As if that really mattered.

It’s been almost a year since then, and I am once again capable of shopping at Walmart without accosting hapless patrons. But I can’t read the book or watch the movie without remembering that night.

At least a dozen times a day, I walk past the hold shelves at the library. And every time, I see the spine of The Hunger Games. I’m not perfect. I still take things for granted all the time. But that black spine keeps me on my toes. It reminds me that I’m not starving. I’m not naked. I’m not homeless. I have a job. I have friends. I have a queen size bed, and an iPod, and a laptop, and a smart phone.

You can try to tell me that YA fiction doesn’t matter. But you’d be wrong. YA fiction changes lives. It definitely changed mine.

Sara Ansted

I’m 26. A not-exactly-mainstream 26 year old. My income goes to lightsabers, not shoes. My time goes to Doctor Who, not Cosmopolitan. (Did you like that? Doctor Who. Time.) (Just smile and nod.) I work in a library. I’m just a peon. The lowly back room alphabetizer. But someday I’ll be as cool as the real librarians. Some day I, too, will know everything.

Editor's note: Current statistics indicate that despite the abundance of food you see available in the store, 1 in 6 American children go to bed hungry each night.


  1. Absolutely great post. I had the same reaction reading HG late one night. "We are the capitol!!" Very well said.

  2. Anonymous4/11/2012

    That's the best review I've read of Hunger Games. Thanks for that!

  3. That's an interesting statistic at the end. I feel like that makes it even more important to remember how lucky the rest of us are.

  4. I've reread The Hunger Games, too, and agree it's better the second time around when you can relax and notice more of the details as you're not worried about the plot.

    I digress. Well-written. I am going to share this with students tomorrow on a field trip to our state capitol. We're having a READ IN on the state house steps.