Teenage US bestseller Hunger Games scores as school text

Many support SCGS decision to use Hunger Games as text but some question violence levels

The teen hit The Hunger Games has found its way into local mainstream education.

This year, Secondary 2 students at Singapore Chinese Girls' School (SCGS) are using the bestseller by American author Suzanne Collins as a literature text, alongside the more recognised classic Merchant Of Venice. It is the only school believed to be doing so.

Many support the move, saying the use of such a popular book - it has been dominating the US Young Adult bestsellers' list since its release in 2008 - will help draw more students to the study of literature.

But some have raised eyebrows, questioning whether the levels of violence in the book, which features duels to the death between teenagers, makes for appropriate study material.

The Ministry of Education (MOE) told The Sunday Times that The Hunger Games is not on its list of recommended texts for lower secondary level, but added that schools are free to choose books they think would "meet the needs of their students".

SCGS vice-principal Shermaine Tang said it chose the book for its "literary value" in exploring themes such as friendship, love and family, survival and inequality.

The book, the first of a trilogy which has spawned a major movie franchise, also has a "strong female figure who exemplifies the values of valour", she added.

The main character is Katniss Everdeen, a bow-wielding 16-year- old who decides to take her younger sister's place in an annual ritual - the games of the book title - in which 24 teenagers battle each other to the death in a reality television extravaganza. The event symbolises the control wielded by an autocratic ruler.

In an act of rebellion, she ensures she and a boy she knows end up victorious when only one was meant to survive.

The book has sparked plenty of debate in the United States. Some say the plot is dark and disturbing, especially in relation to scenes of teenagers killing one another with rocks, arrows and knives - scenes which were watered down in the movie to get a PG13 rating.

A 46-year-old parent who declined to be named said his Secondary 2 daughter in SCGS had not read the book before the school introduced it. "The book has gory descriptions of children killing children mercilessly to save themselves," said the parent who works in the financial services. "It's not right to introduce such violence to children so young."

But others point out that there is far more graphic violence in computer games and on TV, and studying the book will let children come to terms with it in a safe setting.

Polytechnic lecturer Yong Kit Mun, 56, whose two daughters are in SCGS, said: "School is the best place to discuss issues such as violence and war. We should expose children to such things from young to help them see right and wrong."

Vice-principal Tang said students are taught to analyse what they read critically. Teachers draw links between current world situations and the games' violence to discuss the "senselessness of today's violence".

Authors and educators also believe the book raises relevant themes for today's world.

A 29-year-old English teacher said her students drew parallels between the rebellion featured in The Hunger Games to Hong Kong's youth-led protests last year in discussions about revolutions.

Local poet Alvin Pang, who was named 2005 Young Artist of the Year (Literature) by the National Arts Council, said "literature is also the study of the human condition, and violence is part of it. Our students need to understand where violence comes from rather than pretend it doesn't exist. It all depends on how (the book is) taught".

Assistant Professor Samara Cahill from the Nanyang Technological University's English division, said young people can handle the "darkness of human experience"."History is disturbing, too, but we would never consider not studying it."

Ms Khoo Sim Eng, senior lecturer in the English programme at SIM University's school of arts and social sciences, said: "It's a good idea to use an accessible text that has street cred.

"Much as I love Shakespeare, I know too many people who did one of his plays at Secondary 2 and who were so turned off that they thought literature in general was not their cup of tea."

She added that The Hunger Games looks at "what happens when people are driven into a horrible situation in which children are forced to kill other children".

"That's what literature should do, it should make us think, speculate, ask ourselves what if...?"

Most secondary school students The Sunday Times spoke to said studying The Hunger Games would be something they would enjoy. Paya Lebar Methodist Girls' School (Secondary) student Grace Pang, 15, said the book is "more modern and interesting" than the usual literature texts. "And most of us have read it."

It boils down to how the book is taught in class, said educational psychologist Jessie Ooh. She said young people are "still perceiving the world around them in fairly concrete terms, that is, things are either right or wrong.

"At this stage, they still need substantial adult guidance to consider the long-term consequences of their actions."


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