As the semester nears its end, we take a swift look at novels aimed for teens. AMERICAN BORN CHINESE considers shifting identities, and the graphic storytelling gives a nod to THE INVENTIONS OF HUGO CABRET, which we read earlier. We also go back in time to the somewhat utopian domestic world Louisa May Alcott depicted in LITTLE WOMEN, and a look ahead to the dystopia of THE HUNGER GAMES.
What do these two novels featuring independent girls who feel both at odds with society, and pressure to conform, have in common? Alan Scarpone pointed out how poverty and class are a theme in LITTLE WOMEN, though love eases deprivations that never reach the extremes seen in THE HUNGER GAMES. Food and song are ways to create community in LITTLE WOMEN, beginning with the Christmas breakfast that is given away, and ending with the family gathered for a picnic, once again singing. In contrast, starvation is a real danger in THE HUNGER GAMES, which makes that one burnt loaf of bread that Peeta tosses to Katniss, or was it the pigs, so special. Alicia Stein pointed out that Katniss must grow up fast, as is typical of many children today, while LITTLE WOMEN depicts a prolonged childhood and adolescence, for Mrs. March believes “children should be children as long as possible.”
Still, Jo must struggle in what Christina Kent wrote of as a social arena, “one that provides endless obstacles and challenges for her to defeat.” Both protagonists defy conventions, Jo by character and choice, and Katniss by necessity. Alicia noted that both are described as “tall and thin with dark hair and sharp grey eyes.” Jo wishes she could fight in a war she believes is just, to defeat slavery, while Katniss takes up her bow and arrow against others with reluctance, for no cause but survival. Both take on protector roles, providing for their families that are virtually fatherless. Katniss’s father died, while Jo’s father is away at war when the novel opens, then coming back near the end of the first part basically to chart the growth of his little women.
Marmee is forever giving, while Katniss’s mother responds to trauma by losing herself in grief. Since she’s inaccessible to her children, Katniss must act as both mother and father, bringing home food, as well as nurturing her little sister. Younger sisters motivate both Jo and Katniss to courage and sacrifice, and provide a place where the strong heroines can show their softer sides. Reagan Eckler noted that at the beginning of the novels, Jo is fifteen and Katniss sixteen, older sisters who are considered by thirteen-year-old Beth and twelve-year-old Prim as the people they need most. Christina Freitas analyzed how both Beth and Prim are “innocent, pure, and unfailingly kind, offering little sparks of hope as their lives falter or crumble around them.” Both are gentle rescuers of abandoned animals. She observed how while neither take up much space, their influence pervades the novels, serving as a kind of conscience. Jo tries to raise Beth’s spirits when sick, and Katniss looked for ways for Prim to feel hopeful in the face of their mother’s depression.
These are stories of struggle, but also romance. Alicia noted the parallels of Laurie and Gale as the friends who have romantic feelings that aren’t necessarily returned. Reagan mentioned how both are good looking, argumentative, and are thought by the girls as “the only people they feel they can truly be themselves with.” She notes that in both cases it’s the girls who reject romance, while ending up in a sort of love triangle. Family is so important to them that to consider these boys as like brothers is the highest praise. Stephani Spindel wrote that in the 1800s, “survival meant understanding how to play the social game” and how while both protagonists resist marriage, both ultimately end up in relationships that may surprise readers, but were those in which they came to “accept themselves for who they are.”
One book is realistic, written after Louisa May Alcott was asked to try to write something for girls, who she claimed to know nothing about. She preferred writing Gothic tales, but broke ground by showing the importance of the ordinary lives of young women in a book that was an immediate best seller and has never gone out of print. The other was inspired by the Greek myth of Theseus and the minotaur, Suzanne Collins’s knowledge of her father’s experience in the Air Force, and by watching TV reality shows, or more particularly, noting how a remote control can let viewers quickly switch between such shows and war coverage. At the center of both is a young woman who is a bit like Artemis, one independent by nature, the other taught by her father to use a bow and arrows. I can’t claim, though I wish I could, that both speak to this coming generation. HUNGER GAMES is more widely read by today’s teenagers, but it’s interesting to see some homage, if accidental, to Louisa May Alcott’s masterpiece.