At the mostly innocent and illiterate age of 4, my son is not yet asking to read "The Hunger Games" or see the movie. And so, to my relief, I don't yet have to consider whether or not I think he's ready to deal with a story about kids who are forced by adults to kill each other while the whole country watches on TV.

Nevertheless, as I fell under the spell of the first "Hunger Games" book last week, I turned the pages with a heightened sense of anxiety that, I suspect, would have been missing before my son was born. Now, instead of identifying with brave young characters living in a terrifying world — as I would have as a teenager — I found myself wondering again and again how the parents of the tributes felt about watching society rip their children away.

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I also thought how I might talk to my son about books like these when, not too many years from now, he picks them up and reads late into the night. "The Hunger Games" may seem like an outlandish premise, after all, but the real world is full of nightmares for kids.

There are places where children are literally taken away, turned into soldiers and made to kill. Everywhere, there's abuse, neglect, bullying and other horrors that make life miserable for young people, forcing them to fight — literally or figuratively — for their own survival.

Just about every parenting website addresses existential questions about how best to talk to kids about death, using clear language and details that vary depending on the child's stage of development. Parenting experts are also full of opinions about when to allow young people to read violent stories or watch the big-screen versions.

The nonprofit advocacy organization Common Sense Media, for example, suggests 13 as an appropriate age for watching "The Hunger Games" movie. A vote among kids came up with age 12.

Still, there's no science-based "right" answer for when kids are ready to deal with reality's most awful themes or how best to broach these subjects with young people. At the same time, our society is clearly presenting an ever-increasing bounty of opportunities for such conversations.

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Forty years ago, there was no such thing as young-adult literature, according to a Wall Street Journal article that evoked lots of buzz last year. Today, books for teens and preteens regularly include stories of murder, suicide, vampires, kidnapping, rape, drug overdoses and worse.

Suzanne Collins, author of the "Hunger Games" trilogy, believes that books like hers are an important way to teach kids about the harsh realities of war and violence before they inevitably experience these themes in their own lives.

"If we wait too long, what kind of expectation can we have?" she told The New York Times. "We think we're sheltering them, but what we're doing is putting them at a disadvantage."

With the way our society is structured today, it's only natural that books like the "The Hunger Games" have become popular, added children's literature expert Anita Silvey in an interview with National Public Radio.

"Reality TV has gone lower and lower every season," Silvey told NPR. "We are sending our young people to the other side of the world to kill young people. And children and teens are killing each other in schools. When you have all those elements to throw in the cauldron of story, I don't think it's surprising that 'The Hunger Games' comes out of that."

Plenty of publishers, librarians and even teens have also argued that kids derive great comfort from reading about young people like them who suffer too, and that books with dark themes help teens get through the dark days of violence.

Exposure to violence alone is not necessarily what critics object to in these books, though. Instead, parents worry about the way these stories are told and the psychological burdens they might place on the shoulders of our impressionable kids.

"Reading about homicide doesn't turn a man into a murderer; reading about cheating on exams won't make a kid break the honor code," wrote Meghan Cox Gurdon in The Wall Street Journal article. "But the calculus that many parents make is less crude than that: It has to do with a child's happiness, moral development and tenderness of heart. Entertainment does not merely gratify taste, after all, but creates it."

In lieu of censorship or book banning, perhaps the best solution is for parents to seek out the dark books that are done well, to read with their kids and to be available to answer questions along the way, as Christopher John Farley argued in The Wall Street Journal.

"Novels can help provide kids with a moral architecture to house ideas about the world," Farley wrote. "If they are steered away from books that deal with issues they may face in school or on the playground, they may be denied the intellectual tools to deal with vexing problems."

Reading is something we all want our children to fall in love with. And if reading can give our kids strategies that help them through life, who are we to stop them?

"There are millions of teens who read because they are sad and lonely and enraged," wrote Sherman Alexie, also in The Wall Street Journal. "They read because they live in an often-terrible world. They read because they believe, despite the callow protestations of certain adults, that books — especially the dark and dangerous ones — will save them."

As a child, Alexie wrote, "I read books about monsters and monstrous things, often written with monstrous language, because they taught me how to battle the real monsters in my life.

"And now I write books for teenagers because I vividly remember what it felt like to be a teen facing everyday and epic dangers. I don't write to protect them. It's far too late for that. I write to give them weapons — in the form of words and ideas — that will help them fight their monsters. I write in blood because I remember what it felt like to bleed."

Photo: Courtesy of Lionsgate Films.