Scarvey column: I'm on Team Katniss

Published 12:00 am Friday, March 23, 2012

Back when the “Twilight” series was all the rage, I understood people being attracted by the vampire part of the equation — we’ve been sucking those stories down since Bram Stoker put Transylvania on the map.
But I didn’t much get the series’ heroine, Bella Swan, or the ferocity with which young girls seemed to defend her as a character, other than the fact she was like catnip for two hot guys and seemed — inexplicably — to be the focus of everyone’s attention.
Full disclosure: I have seen several of the “Twilight” movies but have not managed to choke down more than a few pages of Stephenie Meyer’s prose. So.
Basically passive, Bella is of interest insofar as she is an object of desire for Edward and Jacob. So much so, in fact, that before they even meet, Edward breaks into her bedroom to watch her sleeping. I guess stalkers get a pass if they’re good-looking and sparkle in the sunlight.
Bella is equally obsessed, in a most unhealthy way. I kept thinking, come on girl, get a hobby. Join the cross country team. Load up on AP courses. Take a pottery class. But no, it’s all about the iron-deficient Edward, who becomes the ever-fixed mark around which she revolves.
The low point for me was when, in a delirium of self-destructiveness, our heroine takes a Bella Swan dive off a cliff. But of course Edward swoops in to save her. Because boys really, really like crazy girls. And girls are weak and need to be saved. Ugh.
Katniss in “The Hunger Games” (by Suzanne Collins) also finds herself caught between two boys for whom she also cares a great deal: Gale, her illicit hunting partner, and Peeta, the baker’s son she’s paired off with for the Hunger Games competition.
But the similarities end there. Unlike Bella, Katniss has a life. Her moony and depressed mom has never really recovered from the death of Katniss’ father and seems almost paralyzed. It falls to Katniss to do what must be done — like hunting and trading on the black market — so her family won’t starve. After her little sister, Prim, is chosen to compete in the games — which is almost certainly a death sentence — Katniss volunteers to take her place, making herself a highly expendable pawn in the deadly game that’s broadcast for the entertainment of the masses.
But don’t count her out. Katniss has skills. She’s smart and a problem-solver. She’s unsentimental and pragmatic. Some readers of the book find it horrifying that she tries to drown a cat — it’s eating food the rest of them desperately need — but if anything, that endeared her to me. She understands that in desperate times, you have to get your priorities straight, and her potential love life is anything but a priority.
As the series continues, Katniss begins to care about more than the survival of her immediate family and friends. Her political awareness is heightened and she becomes a symbol of the resistance movement.
She is a person of substance.
I believe the first time “The Hunger Games” landed on my radar was after my friend Maggie Blackwell mentioned it. She explained that she was mentoring a confirmand at First Presbyterian, Madeleine Nagy, and read the books so she and Madeleine could have something to talk about. Maggie ended up loving them as much as Madeleine did.
I made a mental note but didn’t follow up until I began to hear my older daughter talking about much she liked them. My husband and I followed suit (me, paper; him, Kindle). Then my younger daughter.
How lucky girls are today to have these books, this character. What I wouldn’t have given to have had a book with such a role model when I was a girl!
In a lot of the books I read as a kid, the characters who really got to do anything interesting were boys. Whenever I found a book with a strong female character, I latched on to it like it was a lifeline: “Island of the Blue Dolphins,” “Caddie Woodlawn,” “Harriet the Spy.” Even “Charlotte’s Web.” Sure, Charlotte was a spider, but she was a strong and wise female character. You had to take what you could get.
They fed my hunger to see girls actually doing things, important things. In my immediate world, girls — unlike boys — weren’t even allowed to go outside in the mornings to play softball before the bell rang. Why? I have no idea. Softball was…for boys? It was an era of very casual sexism, when people were still debating whether women could safely run a marathon, when my mom, despite having a full-time job, couldn’t do any serious banking without my dad’s signature. I had already graduated from college before a woman could even compete in a marathon in the Olympics.
But here we are, 40 years later, running marathons (and ultramarathons), playing softball before school (I hope) and realizing we don’t need a boy, even if he does glitter in the sun, to save us.
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If you like Katniss, may I suggest another Young Adult book with a fantastic heroine? It’s “The Book Thief,” by Markus Zusak, and it just might change the way you think about YA fiction.
Contact Katie Scarvey at