Why Can’t Katniss Have an Accent?: The Role of the Southerner in American Children’s Literature
In a recent USA Today piece we learned that the two leading contenders for the role of Katniss in the upcoming Hunger Games movie are Chloe Moretz and Kristen Stewart (thanks to bookshelves of doom for the link). Moretz, if you might recall, played the imaginary friend in the recent Diary of a Wimpy Kid movie. Stewart is the actress best known for portraying Bella Swan in Twilight. To my mind, neither is a particularly sparkling personality on the silver screen. Had I my way we’d cast someone outside of the usual white girl between the ages of 12 and 29 pool.
Of course, all this talk of Katniss casting (or “castniss” if we’re gonna be cute) made me think of the most recent YouTube video of Suzanne Collins reading the first chapter from Mockingjay:
Prior to the release of book #3 all the YouTube commenters could talk about was Collins’s choice to give Katniss an Appalachian accent. In fact, I saw a fair amount of adults also lamenting this choice on a variety of blogs and websites and Twitter feeds. What was up? Why is an American accent that deviates from the standard “newscaster” bent such a bone of contention for folks?
Well, then I made the mistake of thinking about other books. At first I just wondered to myself, “Are there any other books starring kickass girls with southern accents out there?” On the YA side of things there’s Beautiful Creatures by Kami Garcia and Margaret Stohl, sure but my bent is children’s literature related anyway.
So out of curiosity I started looking at Newbery winners and my 100 Best Children’s Novels Poll results to see some of the big time children’s literary novels set in the south. Not just to see books starring girls, but books with stars of both genders. I walked into it thinking that maybe all the books set there are historical in some manner. This assumption was summarily destroyed by all the contrary evidence.
We do not lack for award winning books for kids set down South. Insofar as I can tell, books do best if they come from Texas. There you can find your Evolution of Calpurnia Tate and your Holes. These are all Newbery winners of one kind or another. Join to them The Underneath and this year’s Keeper (not an award winner yet). All Texan and, notably, all except Calpurnia are contemporary. I think that’s important.
A quick glance at past Newbery winners and I run into Bridge to Terabithia, which takes place in rural Virginia, and Because of Winn-Dixie, located in Florida. Roll of Thunder, Hear My Cry and its fellow titles in Taylor’s series is a Mississippi based story and Where the Red Fern Grows (not an award winner) takes place in the Ozarks.
Clearly we do not exactly lack for Southern fare. So why the outrage over the Katniss accent? One commenter on Twitter mentioned that she assumed that each district had its own regional accent. That would be a fascinating option, should the movie wish to take an original stance with this book.
Maybe the problem lies with our movies and television shows today. Generally speaking, if you want to make someone a bad guy you give him a southern accent. Ditto women. Our ears have been trained, to a certain extent, to reject accents in general. That why Brits get to be bad guys too. And look at the books I just mentioned. You’ve seen filmed versions of some of these, yes? Do you remember Stanley Yelnats with a Texan accent? How about Bridge to Terabithia? I’m going to give Because of Winn-Dixie some extra points because it does have a Southern feel, though I’ve my doubts about AnnaSophia Robb’s accent (it doesn’t quite match her pop’s). Otherwise, not a whole lot out there.
There’s no way in this wide world they’ll give Katniss an accent, of course, but it’s interesting to speculate just the same. Makes you wonder why we limit ourselves to the same old, same old. Makes you wonder too if someday we’ll be more open to the idea of listening to people with personality in their vocal chords.
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About Betsy Bird
Betsy Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.
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