Posts tagged ‘dystopia’

February 7, 2011

The haunting song of the mockingjay

I was SO excited for this book.  I LOVED the first two in the series (Hunger Games and Catching Fire, in case you are either from another planet, or maybe don’t have a teenage daughter around), and pre-ordered this book from Amazon.  While I love Amazon and my free two-day shipping and access to almost all products cheaper, in general I try to buy my books from my local indie store.  But I wanted this one immediately.  Trouble is, Amazon didn’t send it immediately.  In fact, I ended up getting it about a month after it came out, by which time I was so upset about the whole thing I wasn’t really excited to read it anymore.  So it took me until now to open the coveted pages of one of the most anticipated books of the year.  There were parts that I really liked.  There were also parts that I hated.  I do think the trilogy as a whole is a brilliant piece of work, from deep character development to a great analysis of humanity and the worlds we create for ourselves.

I was excited to discuss my opinion of the book with someone, but when I logged on to my favorite discussion group, I was wholly disappointed to find all the chatter to be about Peeta versus Gale.  REALLY?  While the final decision, if it even was a decision, is symbolic of some of the book’s messages, it is not always about the boy.  Well, maybe in the case of Twilight, it was about the boy.  But these books are actually about something.  Hopefully, my discussions below will help you discover what.

The questions below are well-suited to the individual reader who just wants to sit and ponder for a minute, and would also make great discussion starters for a family that reads together, a book club, or a classroom of students with a teacher astute enough to assign something that is both so popular and powerful.  WARNING: from here on out, I assume you’ve read the book.  SPOILERS INCLUDED.

Title: Mockingjay
Author: Suzanne Collins
Genre: Fantasy, Science Fiction, Dystopia
Age Group: Middle Grade, Young Adults, and Millions of Adults!

Summary and Review (CONTAINS SPOILERS):

The rebellion is in full force now, but unfortunately we don’t see much of the action.  While I loved Katniss’s voice in the first two books, I felt strangely trapped inside of her head in this one.  I REALLY wanted out.  The first person became too much, as through the first half of the book, all she does is whine her way through the days.  She whines about Peeta.  She whines about Gale.  She whines about District 13 (and yet seems to strangely ignore all the weirdness and fascism that IS District 13).  She is SO uber-serious about her own thoughts and jumps on anyone who doesn’t read her mind and respect her immediately, and yet she is just as quick to put everyone else down.  It all got really tiring after awhile.  The worst part, though, is the beginning, where she is considering whether or not to be the symbolic “mockingjay” for the rebellion.  I wanted to kick her head in as she weighs the pros and cons behind something that really isn’t her decision–it’s just who she is.  Throughout the decision process, she plays the constant victim, and yet also wants our sympathy for being a hero at times–saving Peeta’s life, threatening to eat the berries.  Let’s face it, she’s been a rebel for awhile, even if if was unknowingly at first.  The fact that she couldn’t embrace that made me almost turn my support over to Coin.  I mean seriously.

Although, in Suzanne Collins’ defense, she is a teenage girl, and I DID feel trapped inside the mind of a teenage girl.  So maybe that’s what she was after.  But in general, I like my heroes to have SOME likable qualities…I mean anything that I can respect and relate to.  But maybe that wasn’t the point.

The other thing that really got to me was the amount of time spent describing the propaganda and the cameras.  I though the same point could be made without quite that many pages dedicated to make-up.  I get it–people are superficial!  I get it–war is about propoganda and lies just as much as bullets!  Enough already!

But here’s what I loved: I LOVED the ending.  I loved the message–that humans are evil, the world is evil, and it pretty much always will be!  When I was reading the first two books, I was wondering if it could end any other way, but I doubted the ability of a major book to end with such a honestly depressing theme.  But I shouldn’t have doubted Suzanne.  It’s not that I think the world is a horrible place.  But let’s face it.  The world is, at times and for many people, a horrible place.  Look at Egypt right now.  Look somewhere else tomorrow.  And to ignore that is to let it continue.  So that you, Suzanne, for not letting us ignore it.

Okay, maybe that’s enough of me, too.  I’m including below some of the questions I’ve been asking myself.  I would love to stand in front of a middle school English class and ask them.  Or ask them to a group of teenagers.  Or anyone else that’s read the book.  But my husband has not and my toddler has not.  So I’m asking you.  Please feel free to respond with comments!  I would love that!  And if not, please use these questions in your our family, your own book groups, or your own classrooms.  That would be cool, too!

Discussion Questions for Suzanne Collins’ Mockingjay

1. Katniss mentions a few times in the beginning of the book her discomfort and unease with the totalitarian ways of District 13.  But she doesn’t seem to question them much and no one else does either.  It seems completely shocking to me to leave the control of the Capitol for something so controlling and not talk about it.  Why do you think it is?  Does no one notice?  Do they notice but not dare say anything because that’s what they are used to doing?  Is anything better than the Capitol?

2. Katniss seems unwilling to take control of her own life in the beginning of the book.  Why?  Is this a low point because of all she’s endured?  Or is she (like all of us perhaps) just a better person when things are going badly and turns back into her own narcissistic teenage self when life is more comfortable?

3. Think of specific scenes from the book.  We are seeing them only through Katniss’s eyes.  What would they look like through Gale’s or Haymitch’s?  How would this be a different story? (Because I believe it would be REALLY different.)

4. The message of the book was that humans suck, war sucks, violence sucks and humans will always default to war and be violent.  Do you agree or disagree?

5. Why, oh god why, did Katniss take so much time deciding whether or not to be the Mockingjay?  Personally, I wanted to shoot her.  I wonder how the story would have been different if she just assumed she would be and did it from the beginning.  I’m not sure I see the advantage in the many pages of anstsy decision-making.  But maybe you do?  Discuss.

6. The book focused a lot on propoganda.  A lot.  Why?

I’ve got more, but I’ll leave you with that for now.  If you have opinions, I’d love to discuss them with you!!  Or leave me your own to discuss.

🙂

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October 19, 2010

Is that your organ or mine? A compelling dystopia with cloning, slavery, drugs, and other things we bring upon ourselves

I had to read this novel.  It was for school.  I was about to assign it to my kids, 7th graders, for a dystopia project, on the advice of a librarian, so I needed to read it first.  What an awesome assignment!  I loved it.  It’s a page-turner.  It’s adventurous.  It’s emotional.  It makes you think about where the world today is going.  All things I love when I am reading a great book.  And it’s why I think young adult and children’s books are often so much better than adult books.  Wasn’t it the author of The Golden Compass who said that you can deal with so much more in a kid’s book?  Well, this book is a great example of that.

Title: The House of the Scorpion
Author: Nancy Farmer
Genre
: Fantasy/Science Fiction
Age: Middle School and High School and lots of Adults

Summary and Review:

The main character, Matt, is a clone.  He lives in the country of Opium, between the United States and another fictional country of this dystopic future.  In his society, clones are created and their minds altered with at birth so that they have none of their own emotions or thoughts.  They are treated like animals, or worse.  But Matt is a special kind of clone.  He is a clone of the country’s dictator, who demands that his brain be kept intact.  But this isn’t a gesture of good will–the dictator will kill Matt when the time is right, because Matt exists to keep the dictator’s life eternal–when he needs a new organ, Matt will be there ready, as have many clones in the past.

Matt must first understand that he is not a human at least as far as others see him, and then relearn his humanity with the help of a few caring souls.  He does eventually escape his horrible fate in his own country, but only to join a fate as a child slave laborer in the next one.  The book is full of issues that mirror today’s society, and this, combined with likable characters and a compelling narrative, makes it a great read.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

A lot of kids have trouble understanding what a “clone” is.  They know the term mostly from science fiction stories and snippets they hear, mostly out-of-context in the news, and so they don’t really get the full story.  As a result, I found some kids would read this book and have trouble understanding why a clone wouldn’t be treated differently.  So this is an important starting place for a conversation.  Make sure your child knows what it means to be a clone.  Basically, that the DNA is taken from one individual, put into an embryo, and a baby develops.  That baby is no different from any other baby, whose DNA happened to come from two individuals via an egg and sperm, but some students have a hard time understanding that.  Sometimes I relate the issue to identical twins.  Clones are no more alike than identical twins–in other words, they will probably look like the person they are cloned from, and probably have some similarities, but they will be their own person.  Getting kids to fully understand the implications that Matt is fully human is an important first step to understanding this book.  (After all, in today’s society, many children start out as “test tube” babies, and this, while different and controversial in whole new ways, is, from the point of view of the kid who is born, very much the same.)

Older middle school students and high school students can relate this to stem cell research as well.  I don’t think there are many people out there who would argue that it’s okay to “grow” a human being and then kill it for your own purposes–that’s the equivalent of saying we should be able to do anything we wanted with our own children.  However, there is a debate about what it’s appropriate to do with embryos that are created in the process of trying to help someone get pregnant and one their way to be destroyed.  Should scientists first be able to research on them for the good of those already alive, or is that wrong, since they have the “potential” to become human life?  Or should we not be allowed to create such things in the first place?  Books like this can help students wrap their heads around issues that otherwise seem too big or too irrelevant for them to understand.

If your child is reading this book, I would highly recommend reading it with them.  It will help you identify issues that are most important to you and your child and help direct a conversation even further.  Plus, it’s a great read.

September 24, 2010

Imagine if you had the power to GIVE color to some who could only see in black and white

I would argue that you do have this power.  We all do.  I’ve never met someone who sees the world the same way I do.  This could mean that I’m some kind of mutant.  But more likely I think it means that we all see things differently.    And by having real conversations with each other, we can spread the color around until all of our worlds become so colorful, so multi-dimensional that we would have no choice but to see the other person’s point of view.

That would be power.  The kind of power that changes the world.  And in Jonas’s world in the beautifully conceived Giver, that’s exactly what does happen.

Title: The Giver
Author: Lois Lowry
Genre
: Fantasy
Age: Middle School, 9 – 13

Summary and Review:

Jonas is 12 and he is about to learn his profession, chosen for him by the elders in his society and handed out in a ceremony with his peers.  But Jonas isn’t chosen for one of the standard jobs of child-rearing or cleaning.  Instead, he is chosen to be the next “Receiver of Memories” and as his training begins, he starts to realize things about his world he never saw before.

The first thing Jonas does is stop taking the drugs prescribed to all citizens when they reach adolescence.  He notices feelings for girls he never had before.  He starts to see in color when before he only saw in black and white (and significantly, the first thing he sees is the red of an apple).  And he starts to learn the stories from his predecessor, the stories and memories of all that has been taken from his community, all that came before.  He learns about weather that isn’t always perfect.  He learns about war and pain, love and loss.  He learns what it really means when a child who doesn’t developed properly is “released”.  And gradually but finally, he decides he cannot bear the burden of knowledge alone, in a world where these things will never exist.

(SPOILER ALERT) I’ve heard some people complain that the ending is too vague–that they want to know exactly what happens to Jonas.  But Jonas is escaping a world where everything is predictable and controlled.  The fact that he has even made it into the unknown means he has succeeded.  And that, to me, is the whole point.

Possible conversations to have with your kids:

I could talk about this book for months.  In fact, I’ve used it in the classroom, to talk with seventh graders about utopia and dystopia and what those themes means.  Nowadays, I suppose every seventh grader has read Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games trilogy (which I also love) and so they have been certainly introduced to those themes.  This book is less violent, perhaps more subtle, more introspective, but no less powerful.  And this book isn’t about a community-wide struggle for freedom, but simply one boy’s quest for the truth in the world, even if that quest comes from understanding just how painful that truth can be.

One great family activity after reading this book would be to watch the movie Pleasantville.   It has a lot of similar themes–a seemingly perfect society where everything is in black and white, everyone is “happy”, if only in conversation, and the weather is perfect.  There is also no outside world.  But then two modern kids are zapped through their television (Pleasantville is an old TV show) and they start to change the society.  Through their actions the citizens of Pleasantville are introduced to color, love, sex, and knowledge along with hatred, bigotry, and censorship.  The image of the red apple also appears symbolically in the film.

(SPOILER ALERT) The movie also ends on slightly vague terms, although not as vague as the book, giving rise to the idea (and great discussion topic) that uncertainty is one of the prices we pay for our freedom.

Simply comparing the movie and the book will give you a lot to talk about and illuminate a lot of important themes.  Some other questions you might want to discuss are:

– Why did the people of Jonas’s society decide to create it the way they did?  What do you think were the benefits?  Do you see any benefit to living in a black and white, seemingly “perfect” society?

– Why did they create a “Receiver of Memories” if they wanted to erase those things from their own memories?

– If you were in Jonas’s position, would you have done the same thing?  Why?

– Is there anything in our own society that attempts to make things “more pleasant” for us at the expense of knowledge or experience?  What is that?  Do you think it’s a good idea?  Are there things we shouldn’t be allowed to learn by making our own mistakes or having our own experiences?  (Examples might include laws that protect us from ourselves, like a drinking age, school dress codes, internet filters at school or a library, etc.)

– If you were to design the “perfect” society, what would it look like?  What kind of laws would you have?