The Literacy Games: Summer Lessons About Media from YA Fiction




IN HOLLYWOOD, you know it’s summer when the trees that are superhero movies sprout new branches. A newish genus of Hollywood tree — the YA novel — can be seen sprouting new branches all over the place at present. The release of the film version of John Green’s Paper Towns last month marked the beginning of the summer YA-book-to-movie season, which got a head start in March with Insurgent, the second film based in Veronica Roth’s bestselling Divergent series. The season will reach a highpoint in the late fall, with the release of the second part of Mockingjay, concluding the Hunger Games series.

Such releases are noteworthy in part because they showcase the booming business of young adult media industries, which stretch across multiple platforms of content creation and dissemination, including publishing, filmmaking, and gaming, to name just a few. YA fiction is among the most lucrative arms of the contemporary publishing industry, with millions of dollars spent each year in producing, marketing, and creating transmedia franchises for books and products aimed at late adolescents and young adults. Many such books “cross over” and are read by teens and adults alike, creating even larger potential audiences. Turning such books into films is an economic no-brainer — fans of the books rush to see their favorite stories acted out, and the films create potential new readers.

For better or for worse, fans consume these stories in a far less passive way than in decades past. Today’s media and culture industries promote, according to media scholar Henry Jenkins, a “participatory culture” in which fan communities are encouraged to be not just consumers but “prosumers,” engaged in passing along and sharing content. In more sophisticated instances, fans create their own remixed content through fan fiction and even video production, such as trailers depicting their own movie versions of their favorite books.

Initially — and somewhat ironically, given their financial investments — media conglomerates displayed anxiety about the proliferation of possibilities for engagement. Think, for example, of the corporate response to Harry Potter fan fiction; copyright holders initially wanted to squash the use of Harry Potter characters when kids wrote and posted their own stories set in Rowling’s universe. It took the publishing industry a while to figure out that having consumer-generated content about these books might lead to greater consumption of them.

Authors and filmmakers know that young people don’t just consume; they make stuff, too. So featuring characters who create content themselves is a key to attracting the attention of young readers and viewers. In Paper Towns, one of the major characters works as a writer and editor for Omnictionary, a Wikipedia-type site that serves as a clearinghouse for information and a major plot device in helping the narrator stalk (he prefers “track down”) his childhood gal pal. Coming from Green, such synergy isn’t surprising, given his internet fame as one of the Vlog Brothers and his steady promotion of young people’s engagement with communications devices and platforms through his Nerdfighters site, which invites contributors to tell how they are fighting to “increase awesome and decrease suck.”

With so much YA work focused on media, how can we — as parents, teachers, citizens, and kids — understand what’s going on, and what such work might be teaching readers and moviegoers?

One way to think about all this “media composing” is as a form of “sponsorship,” a notion developed by literacy scholar Deborah Brandt in her book Literacy in American Lives. For Brandt, literacy sponsorship broadly consists of a variety of “agents, local or distant, concrete or abstract, who teach, model, support, recruit, extort, deny, or suppress literacy and gain advantage by it in some way.” Schools are a primary sponsor of many different kinds of literacies, but so are churches, community groups, and other informal organizations that promote literacy skills and, increasingly, different ways of engaging with media. Public libraries, for instance, are turning themselves into training grounds for a variety of digital skills and programs, while more and more private companies now focus on training folks (for a price) to code, an increasingly important digital literacy. (For more on coding education, see tech journalist David Lumb’s six-part article on a product-development camp.) Such sponsorship of course has economic impact — every country wants its citizens trained in the necessary literacies to ensure an ongoing or an improved standard of living.

At a basic level, publishing houses sponsor literacy because they can monetize it; they want people to buy and read their books. But they also have a vested interest in working across multiple media platforms to keep their stories circulating — in films, computer games, websites, card games — so people keep coming back for more. But we might also think about how such stories guide young people to think about their private use of multimedia. What messages do they send about such use, about how young people should be thinking about both media consumption and media making?

We can take The Hunger Games as one potent example, particularly since the Scholastic Corporation developed it as the successor to Harry Potter. And it hit the jackpot. While the current frenzy for dystopia fiction was fueled by an authentic love for the books, Scholastic lost no time in spawning its own multimedia dynasty. Author Suzanne Collins had worked previously both for Scholastic (as writer of the five-book series starting with Gregor the Overlander) and as a writer for Nickelodeon. Collins also wrote the screenplay for the first Hunger Games film. Capitalizing on Collins’s work in media, the trilogy itself offers readers its own rich depiction of a media environment set in a postapocalyptic America called Panem, in which young people fight to the death in a series of televised games. Given such a plot, the world of The Hunger Games seems ready-made for translation into games across multiple platforms. Scholastic itself has developed its own online games set in Panem.

But the books aren’t just ripe for media making; they are fundamentally about media. At the heart of The Hunger Games books lies a media spectacle within a media spectacle. In the tale, the Capitol keeps its 12 districts in check by staging and televising the annual “Hunger Games,” to which the districts send one male and one female adolescent tribute to fight to the death. The games represent the strength of the Capitol, which had squashed an earlier rebellion by the districts and now requires this ongoing punitive sacrifice. The citizens of the Capitol eagerly watch the games, placing bets on who will survive and paying high prices to provide in-game assistance to their favorite tributes, while the much poorer denizens of the districts resentfully place their hopes in the children they have reluctantly sent to face death. The Hunger Games themselves are multimediated, as though they are a video game come to life, with various traps and challenges rigged throughout the “playing” field and high-tech video displays keeping nightly “score” of who has died at the hands of other tributes.

Our heroine, Katniss Everdeen from District 12, a mining community, brings various hunting and survival skills from her mountainous background to the games. But her ability to play on camera the role of a young woman in love with the male tribute from her district, Peeta, is what ultimately helps her win favor with the spectators. She also learns to manipulate her own representation as a player within the games. While the Capitol uses the broadcast of the games to display its dominance, Katniss realizes that she too can craft how viewers see her. When a younger player with whom she had bonded dies, Katniss holds her fingers up to the cameras in a salute that is returned by viewers in the fallen player’s district.

The panoptic surveillance of the Hunger Games works both ways, with Katniss able to use it not only to curry favor with capital viewers but also to become part of the larger resistance movement against the capital that occupies the plot of the second and third books in the trilogy. In this way, then, The Hunger Games books don’t just depict a media environment, they also act as a narrative about media literacy. Katniss changes from a provincial young woman, good with a bow and arrow, to a media-savvy manipulator. By the final book in the trilogy, Katniss is the poster child of the resistance, who fights against the Capitol with propaganda as much as with military might.

Media literacy, however, is increasingly cast in the books as problematic. Initially, Katniss’s resistant salute in the first book seems empowering, eventually becoming the logo of the resistance. The filmed version of the novel presents this scene with rousing music, highlighting how important this moment of media connection is, particularly as it is made within — and against — the Capitol’s circuits of power. But the revolutionary affect generated around resistance through media begins to pall. In the second book, Katniss realizes that the resistance is hoping to capitalize on her as a media star, even if that means having to sacrifice other characters to save her. By the third book, in which Katniss largely films propaganda videos, she develops a disparaging, even a despairing, relation to her work. While an important part of the war, media manipulation still seems less “real” to her than the street fighting she sometimes finds herself in while filming her propaganda videos.

According to Collins herself, The Hunger Games was inspired at least in part by the rise of reality TV and the ubiquity of media reports on the Iraq war and the war on terror. As such, the books interestingly conflate narratives of stardom and propaganda, Katniss being both the victim of a horrific reality TV show as well as the eventual star of a propaganda campaign for the resistance. The final book focuses primarily on branding as a potential political strategy; in the search for more authenticity, our heroine is put in life-threatening situations at her own request. Such marketing rivals direct action for political efficacy, and politics in the book is largely figured as a propaganda war or terrorist strikes. We rarely see collective action that isn’t associated either with terror strikes or with marketing meetings. Ultimately, the books’ modeling of positive political activity seems impoverished, and their figuration of multiliteracies constantly fraught. Your use of media technologies is always trumped by someone else’s. You yourself become data in a larger, ubiquitous permeation of the cultural field by media manipulation. As Katniss’s mentor Haymitch tells her, “Who cares? It’s all a big show. It’s all how you’re perceived.”

The pathos of Katniss’s narrative comes from her move from a simple if impoverished existence in the districts to the discontents of being a national media star and then figurehead of the resistance. In District 12, she was associated with a poor but seemingly more authentic agrarian life, foraging and hunting for extra food in the forests outside her home. In contrast, the media games of the Capitol and the resistance seem like so much fakery, just part of spectacles designed to manipulate and control. The Hunger Games trilogy might initially gesture toward a way to create agency within a media-saturated world, but the books’ ultimate messages about media ecologies are far more devastating. They are full of unseen and hidden traps against which even the most skilled players may not be able to gain sufficient purchase.

To be fair, the books may offer a cautionary narrative about the dangers of a surveillance society, as well as the dangers of casting oneself into the murky depths of networked stardom. But for all that, the narrative rarely escapes its focus on the “star.” The potential empowerment of the collective media marketing action seems minor compared to the damage done to Katniss. The result may be a modeling — a sponsoring — of media literacy that is more cautionary than empowering.

Interestingly, the first book in The Hunger Games series was released the same year as Cory Doctorow’s Little Brother (2008), another dystopic political tale with perhaps a sharper and even more relevant message. Set in the very near future, Little Brother depicts a terror attack in San Francisco that destroys the Bay Bridge, kills thousands, and initiates government surveillance and information control that’s only slightly more exaggerated than that instituted by the real-life Patriot Act and the Department of Homeland Security.

What’s perhaps most interesting about Little Brother is how pedagogic the work is. Throughout the text, Doctorow, through teen narrator Marcus, offers short, engaging lessons on both the history of computing and the history of protest movements. These histories inspire characters to better understand and intervene in their world, ultimately figuring out how to resist the ubiquitous surveillance set up by the government. In similar fashion, the book offers tidbits of tech advice, as well as information about how to avoid being tracked. By the end of the book, Marcus and his friends have learned how to develop their own platforms of communication and use existing modalities, such as the press, to engage their world critically, and change it, even. In many ways, Little Brother is about seizing the means of cultural and communicative production as a form of resistance and change. Doctorow models an alternative to the world of The Hunger Games, in which existing communication structures don’t liberate but trap us.

Dystopic stories are attractive. They appeal to a readership that feels threatened — economically in an age of downward mobility, and politically in an age of terror. But we need to be asking what kinds of stories about living and working with media these influential narratives offer. How do the stories orient young peoples to the potential power and danger of media use? What kinds of literacy practices are sponsored in them?

Our best bet for a conscious and critical use of media might be to keep the stories complicated. If you’re a parent, sure, go watch the final Hunger Games movie with your kids. But talk about it with them, and put a copy of a book like Little Brother in their hands too (and, while you’re at it, George Orwell’s 1984 as well). If you’re an educator or librarian, create some lessons or displays about media in YA fiction that model many different approaches to media. If you’re a kid, keep an open mind about what you’re reading and watching. And think about making your own movies to share your ideas and keep the conversation going.

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Jonathan Alexander is Professor of English and Education at the University of California, Irvine.


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