Read all of our "Hunger Games" stories
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Meet Colleen Nieland, school librarian, lover of books, ardent fan of "The Hunger Games." So ardent she threw a book-themed party for students in the school library and dressed like a character from the hit young adult novel in anticipation of the much-hyped film, which opens at midnight.
Meet Colleen Nieland, mother. She reluctantly greenlighted the book and its two sequels for her 10-year-old daughter, Emma.
But she won't take Emma to see the PG-13-rated film. Just not yet, anyway.
"Until I see the movie," the 37-year-old Nieland said, "I don't know whether I'll let her watch that or not."
This is a debate that many parents are having as Suzanne Collins' blockbuster novel — in which children must kill each other in a dystopian future world — comes alive on the big screen.
It's one thing to read about the violence, say Nieland and other parents and experts. It's another to see that violence occur: a boy knifed in the back, a girl speared in the middle and the other horrors inflicted upon the young competitors of these Hunger Games.
Douglas Gentile, an associate professor of psychology at Iowa State University, said the story contains allegories — against violence, injustice and a voyeuristic society — that "require a fairly complex level of abstract thought to understand." And he said most children don't achieve that until their teen years.
But even when they can reason abstractly, he said, they need "a fair amount of help, especially with something as powerful and salient as visual violence."
Pat Friman, a psychologist who runs Boys Town's Center for Behavioral Health, said that young children might be inured to the cartoonish types of violence seen in the "Star Wars" and "Transformers" franchises but that "The Hunger Games" presents a more real — and potentially fearsome — kind of story.
"The Hunger Games" is the first of a three-novel series aimed at junior high and high school students. It's set in a post-apocalyptic world in which 24 children, ages 12 to 18, are forced to kill each other in a violent, annual, televised event. The event itself is manipulated by game producers, who toss in natural disasters and genetically altered creatures.
So, at what age can a child handle this?
Don't bring your 7- or 8-year-old, says Boys Town's Friman. Children at that age are just beginning to sift out fantasy from reality. And kids 12 and younger generally aren't thinking broadly enough for a movie's context and themes to shine through, said Iowa State's Gentile.
Common Sense Media, a national nonprofit group, suggested ages 13 and older, and said even those young teens need to be mature enough to absorb the 20-plus deaths shown on screen.
Lew Hunter, who teaches screenwriting at the University of California at Los Angeles and in his hometown of Superior, Neb., said he hasn't read the book but is horrified at its premise.
"My granddaughter is 12," he said. "Not in a million years would I let her see that."
Mike Vance, a lead psychologist at Children's Hospital & Medical Center in Omaha, said parents should be less focused on age.
"There are probably some 13- to 15-year-olds who will not do well ... and probably some 8- to 9-year-olds that could do it," he said. "Parents are by far the best judge."
Common Sense Media and others say the story presents a thought-provoking tale, that when discussed, has the benefit of exploring the author's intent and the bigger themes. Here, parents can play an important role — provide "a teachable moment," Friman says.
Katniss, a perpetually hungry 16-year-old girl, toughened by rough years in the poorest district, is a compelling figure. Not only is she the flesh-and-blood representative of this awful future world; she is also voice of satire, at times a survival-of-the-fittest realist, at times a moral champion of human rights. She's complex. And so is this story.
A kids literature expert from The Bookworm called the story "way too intense" for children under sixth grade.
"I know there are kids that can handle it," said Ellen Scott, who manages the store's children's department. "There's so much in it. So much discussion and talk about society ... that I think younger kids just miss a lot of the point."
Some parents said they were carefully weighing allowing the choice.
Danielle Hain loved the book and wants to see it but will preview the film before letting her 10-year-old son go. Could it be that different from "Transformers" or "Iron Man" or the other "boy-action-adventure" movies he has seen?
Cheryl Houser will probably say yes to her 15-year-old son and no to her 9-year-old daughter who "wouldn't be ready for this yet." A 14-year-old daughter has shown no interest.
Nieland, librarian at Buffett Middle School, can't keep any of the school's 12 copies of "The Hunger Games" on the shelf.
To celebrate the book and the film, she organized a "Hunger Games" party that required the students to create a project telling why they deserved a ticket. Forty students submitted projects — a figure that staggered her, given that there was no grade at stake.
Boys Town's Friman said literature can be an important dress rehearsal for real life — presenting children and teenagers with problems that are not their own immediately but help them develop empathy and cope.
"That allows kids to engage with evil, cognitively, emotionally, intellectually and yet not have to confront it outright," he said. "Having said that, there should be some limits."
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