Tag Archives: The Hunger Games

Raising Scout: Why a Little Old-Time Danger is Good for Kids

When my friends and my husband lament the regimented life-style of kids today—the lessons, the arranged play-dates—reminiscing about the freedom of their 1970s rural or suburban childhoods, where “we ran outside, found our friends and played until our mothers yelled at us to come home for dinner,” I just nod, half wishing I’d grown up like that, half glad I didn’t.

Other people’s stories of childhood, the freedom, the excitement that took place beneath the radar of parents, always seem to involve trees, long shadows, mysterious sounds in the dark woods, and secrets whispered about nearby graveyards.  I listen to my sister-in-law’s harrowing tales of dodging snakes in the deep Wisconsin woods, my neighbor’s yarns about impromptu games of street-tag and rescuing her little brother time and time again from the town bully—for me, these stories carry the full mystique of  Harper Lee’s Scout and Gem Finch, braving the Macon County twilight, crouched in the brush outside Boo Radley’s home.  At the heart of all these stories is danger, risk, requiring the grit, the pluck, to make it home alive without adult intervention.  It’s what I loved about To Kill A Mockingbird (racial politics aside), what I love about all stories of children left to their own devices.

Those devices (call them life-skills or street-smarts) are part of growing up for all kids; they need to be developed and honed to achieve true adulthood.  Childhood pluck becomes adult self-reliance, self-efficacy: the idea that I can accomplish this, or, better yet: I have what it takes to get myself out of this mess.   Mastering danger as a kid can lead to adult confidence.  It’s why too much safety—helicopter parenting in a too-sterile environment—can lead to an anxious child.

I grew up in New York City—far from snakes, where trees and their shadows were confined mostly to fenced in parks—the only child of older parents who’d waited a long time to have me and weren’t taking any chances with my safety.  Our apartment complex on West 100th Street—the dividing line of Manhattan’s Upper West Side—had terraces and tennis courts (where the Mayor himself came to hit); a nice laundry room, pretty playgrounds, gardens and a parking lot.  But right across the street were housing projects, where you could always hear loud voices at night, glass breaking, police cars pulling up.  I could hear the sirens from my bedroom window on the seventeenth floor; I knew there was danger: crime, fights, drugs.  There were also children down there, many left largely to their own devices, roaming their own not-so-pretty playground.  No matter how late I got into my nightgown, teeth brushed, book waiting on my pillow, if I looked out of the window, the children from across the street were always still out.  To me they seemed to have it good.  How lucky, I thought, not to have a bed time.

For me, there was a time for everything: lessons each day after school—ballet, gymnastics, and piano—playdates each Friday, more gymnastics on Saturdays, family bike-riding outings on Sundays and dinner at seven each night with both parents.  When nothing was scheduled, I went to my room and played on my own, drew, or—more often than not—worked on the “book” I was writing (I started it in second grade and finished in fifth).  I had a big imagination that kept me company; I was never lonely.  Just sheltered.

Of course there were moments without supervision.  I rode the bus to and from school alone, and made the most of it.  Unbeknownst to my parents, I’d get off the bus several stops after I got on and wait for my friends who were coming from the East Side on the crosstown bus.  Then we’d all get on a later bus together, treating less-than-appreciative commuters to our noisy grade-school banter and antics.

Friday playdates weren’t always supervised either.  By the time my friends and I were in third grade, everyone’s parents let us walk around our various neighborhoods without an adult.  We could go to a playground, or to a grocery store for bubblegum and high bouncing balls, as long as we made sure to walk on the nicer side of the street and avoid anyone who seemed drunk or crazy. (Not always easy in New York City in the ’70s.)

The city wasn’t safe in those days, but child abduction wasn’t on anyone’s radar.   Instead we worried about “maniacs,” treacherously armed vagrants who got lots of press by holing up at various subway stations, taking mostly unsuccessful swipes at riders, but evading the cops with relative ease.[i]  We kids could all identify the best-known maniacs: for example, Plastic Bag Lady (she wore one over her face), who presided over the traffic island on 96th and Broadway; Hatchet Man, who was stationed at the 72nd IRT line.

Muggings were a big concern too.  Everyone knew someone who’d been mugged.  Kids got mugged for their bus-passes and candy cash all the time.  Getting mugged didn’t depend on the neighborhood you were in.  You could get mugged anywhere.  A big topic of conversation among us kids was what to do if muggers caught up with you.  Give them everything, people said, especially if they have knives.  Some parents packed extra money in kids’ backpacks just in case.  Word was, if you had too little cash on you, it could anger the mugger, and you might really get hurt.  The best thing to do, said one of my friends (whose brother had been mugged walking home from his private school on 91st Street) was—anytime you saw anyone suspicious coming at you—just run as fast as you could go and hide in a store, anywhere you could.

My friend, Laura and I used to play this game on our way from school (on 63rd and Central Park West) to her home on 71st Street.  We’d link arms and walk, one of us looking to the right, the other looking to the left; if either of us saw someone unsavory-looking, we would give the watchword: Creep!  And both would run for our lives.

Though our criteria for a creep was pretty broad—it could be a man or woman, of any age or race—our prototype was an aged, white man with a matted, soot-encrusted beard and missing teeth, who had actually approached us one day, offering candy in a dirty, brown paper bag.  We’d screamed and run that day, concluding, once we were safely in Laura’s lobby, that the candy was poisonous, designed to knock us out so he could drag us off to his lair and chop us up into bite-sized pieces.

Laura and I did a lot of screaming and running for our lives, as we made our way along one of the most expensive stretches of real estate in the city.   It was thrilling.  Like Scout, Gem and Dill, running away from Boo Radley’s home in To Kill A Mockingbird.

My own children play Hunger Games with the other kids on our block, running wild through all the connected backyards, forming alliances and hunting one another down, armed with weapons they’ve fashioned out of K’nex.  I (along with the other moms on the block) am wary of this game, based on a bestseller about kids who survive by doing one another in, but I won’t intervene unless asked to.  Growing children have an innate need for such thrills.  They’ll find them anyway, anywhere they can.  Best served with a heaping dose of imagination.


[i] Not being flippant here, just describing my view as a child of the seventies’ mass-deinstitutionalization of severely mentally ill patients.  One devastating result was an explosion in the mentally ill homeless population.

“My friend’s Book Signing” Or “Why I Can’t wait to read Monument 14”

Me with fellow supporters of Monument 14; Emmy (the author) is on the far right

Sometimes other people’s successes are just as invigorating as our own.  Last Monday, after leaping substantial childcare hurdles, I was fortunate enough to help my friend Emmy Laybourne celebrate the release of her new post-apocalyptic YA book, Monument 14.  Here’s what it’s about in a nutshell:

“Fourteen Kids.  One Superstore.  A Million things that go Wrong.”

And I have lifted that word-for-word from the inside flap.  I can tell you how I know the book is going to do well.  First, my daughter’s best friend read the blurb and demanded to read the book at once, though it’s YA and she’s just eleven, so her mom and I thought we should read it first.  Then I’ll buy her a copy of her own.  Second, Monument 14 has already been called “the next Hunger Games” in The Grindstone.  Third, on the day of the book signing, I arrived late because of traffic, only to discover that the book store which held the event had run clean out of the book, as had the nearby Barnes and Noble!  My friends and I had to check out three different book stores to find copies, at which point we raced back to have Emmy sign our books.  That said, I haven’t read it yet because I’m still reading my book group book and I want to read Monument 14 uninterrupted.   I can’t wait though.  I know Emmy is a fantastic writer because we were in a writers’ group together briefly.  I had an opportunity to read one of her works in progress as well as benefitting from her wise insights on my own work.

Anyway, after the book signing, a group of us—Emmy’s family and friends from inside and outside the publishing world—went to a bar to celebrate over beer and munchies.  I wish I could describe the feel of love, enthusiasm and pride everyone felt just to share in the victory.  As an unpublished writer, and not the only one in attendance, I felt a few things in addition to awe at Emmy’s grand success.  One was a sense of hope.  Not that I expect to be as successful, but this night made me feel that yes: completion, representation, and publication are within the realm of possibility.  I also felt reassured that—despite all the remarkable new devices proliferating and the apps that go with them—people still like books.  Period.  They will buy them and hold them and treasure them and … can you imagine someone trying to sign a Kindle?  And hand it down to their grandkids?  Nuff said.

I also had a chance to talk with Emmy’s editor, one of the nicest young women I’ve met, who just gushed about her job, reading and discovering books.  I talked with Emmy’s publicist too, another unpublished writer, just as nice, about the writing, submitting, and wishing process.  The whole evening made me feel positive and proud and enthusiastic about this whole business of being a writer.

The Hunger Games, Corduroy and Me

Though I read The Hunger Games Trilogy, I have yet to see the movie—just because I haven’t found time.  I’m thrilled that the reviews are so good, that all this anticipation won’t be for naught.  I am also desperately relieved—unlike some on the Twittersphere—that a black child (the impossibly cute Amandla Stenberg, who is actually biracial) was cast in the role of Rue.  Reading the books, I cried when Rue died in the first book, bawled in the second book, when Katniss visits Rue’s district and has contact with the child’s family.  I imagined Rue black, not because I am black, but because Suzanne Collins told me she was.  (Or implied it and later acknowledged that this was her intent.)  In fact, because Thresh, who is not related to Rue, is also described as having dark skin, I was under the impression that most of District 11 was black.  When I learned that there was a film in the works, one of my first thoughts was: will the casting reflect this description?

I had reason to wonder.  A little factoid not everyone knows about me is that I am Lisa, the little girl from the beloved Don Freeman children’s classic book Corduroy.   Well sort of.  Here’s the true story.  My father and Don Freeman were friends through publishing.  Mr. Freeman had been to the house, met me, met my stuffed bear in overalls and got his concept.  Of course, I was just two and my bear had no name, but together we inspired him, or so I’ve been told.  His Lisa is black, the way he imagined I would look when I was eight or nine.  When I was five, Mr. Freeman gave me an original drawing of Lisa and Corduroy—only in this version, he gave her two pigtails like mine, instead of the long ponytail in the book.  He also gave her extra chubby cheeks like I had at that age.  (I am looking at the drawing as I write this: it hangs on my wall.)

Though I didn’t write the book, I’ve often been invited to do readings of it which has been fun.  (I’m told that I really do look like a grown up version of the girl in the book!)  I’ve also read the book to my kids so many times and always thought they knew the words and pictures by heart.  But one day, when I read the book at my children’s school, my daughter, Zoe who was sitting in front, raised her hand and asked:

“If it’s supposed to be you, Mommy, why does the mother in the story have brown skin too?”   Meaning, why wasn’t Lisa’s mother white, like Grandma?  I responded that it was 1968, and back then, it was easier for people to accept children being the same color as their parents. I didn’t hold the publishing industry of the 1960s to such a high standard.  But when I hear people of all races talk about Corduroy the thing they say most is: That was my favorite book as a child!  Or That’s my children’s favorite book!  Everyone loved Corduroy and the little girl who took him home—regardless of the fact that she was not white.  What Corduroy proves is that audiences connect with characters who look different from them, as long as the story is genuine and the feelings are familiar.

I believe the same is true for The Hunger Games.  Rue would be compelling in any color, though the author envisioned her brown.  I wonder if viewers of the film expected Rue to look like Prim, since Rue reminds Katniss of Prim (and Prim is described in the book as fairer than Katniss).  But it is Rue’s youth, sweetness and innocence that touches Katniss’s heart–the fact that she is dark does not dilute these qualities.

And speaking of Katniss, what about the casting choice of Jennifer Lawrence, a blue-eyed blond, playing the role of a girl the book described as having olive skin, dark hair and eyes?   (More like Naya Rivera, who plays Santana on Glee  .  Granted, for the role, Lawrence dyed her hair a little darker.)   Was there a moment when the film was being cast, when people said, okay, what race should Katniss be?  What went into the decision to make her white?  Or was it was always assumed that she would be white because this was going to be such a huge film, and having a white star seemed like the most marketable choice?  Actually, Katniss’s race wasn’t a big deal for me; many white people have olive skin and dark hair anyway.   What would have been a big deal—what would have smacked of deep cowardice—would have been casting a white actress for the role of Rue.  That would have sent the message that: no matter what the writer’s vision was, Hollywood could not expect an audience to weep for a black kid.

It is growing more common in films and on television to cast people of diverse racial backgrounds in mainstream roles without anyone making a big deal out of it.  For example, in Bridesmaids, the protagonist’s best friend Lillian–who was the bride herself—was clearly biracial.  She was played by Maya Rudolph, a biracial actress and comedienne, and in the film, she had a clearly black father and clearly white mother.  I loved that no one mentioned race in the film.  It was just there, and no big deal.  Is that reality–race being no big deal?  No, but what a wonderful wish.  If Hollywood perpetuated that fantasy more—rather than ramming stereotypes down our throats, I wonder: would those stereotypes begin to dissolve?

I do see hope for this though (including the casting choices of The Hunger Games).  In a television show called Flashforward,   which—like most shows I really love (see Rubicon  and Farscape)—got cancelled, the young, hot, engaged couple was interracial: an Asian American FBI guy, and a lovely brown-skinned African American woman.  Though they were leads in the show, there was no mention that their relationship was mixed.  It was no big deal, which I loved.  I also love when a TV show has a character with a same sex partner and that’s no big deal; I love when someone has to leave work a little early to celebrate Shabbos and that’s no big deal.  (Disclosure: I’ve never seen those last two, though it’s possible that just missed them, since I don’t watch a whole lot of TV.)

We’ve come so far since The Jeffersons,  a sit-com about a rich, black couple, where the whole joke was that they were a rich black couple.  For this we can thank the Huxtables, of The Cosby Show, a rich black family, where the show was about being a family. (What I want to see next is a crime drama where the main detective is a lesbian, married to her partner, and that’s no big deal.)

But I was talking about Hunger Games and the furor that’s rocked Twitter this week: fans of the book who saw the movie and were appalled that Rue was shown as black.  Some of the thoughts expressed were that Rue’s being black made her death “less sad.”  Others said it ruined the film, while some criticized the film for not sticking to the book (in which all characters who mattered were white?  Not true, not true!)

When I first read about these reactions, I clicked the red X, closed the page, closed my ears and eyes because I did not want to be reminded that anyone in America felt this way.  That anyone in America would feel less sad if my daughter died than if a white child died.  (The Trayvon Martin case is staring us all in the face as I write this.)  I know that I live with a certain amount of healthy denial; possibly I am giving Americans too much credit.  But if I am, then so was Suzanne Collins when she made Rue a dark skinned child and then dared us to care; so were Gary Ross and Debra Zane (the film’s director and casting director respectively) when they cast Stenberg as Rue and Dayo Okeniyi as Thresh.  (And I love that Lenny Kravitz, a biracial, black, Jewish guy, was cast as Cinna, whose race is not mentioned in the book!)  It should be no big deal.  Does someone have to be like us for us to care about them?  I really hope not.