Suzanne Collins’ famously bloody Hunger Games trilogy may have competition in the form of M. A. Bennett’s S.T.A.G.S.
Published last year and set at the fictional St Aidan the Great School (ie S.T.A.G.S), a British boarding school where social media is banned, it follows a lonely teenager, Greer MacDonald, who is shunned by her classmates for being less wealthy than they are.
She despairs of making friends until she and two other misfits are invited by the wealthy Henry de Warlencourt to a weekend hunting trip at his country estate. Though excited at first, they soon come to the horrifying realisation that Henry and his fellow hunters have not invited them to shoot, but to be shot!
It’s easy to see how the British-Venetian Bennett, who grew up near a stately home with a large country estate in Yorkshire, England was able to link S.T.A.G.S to her own life. Her grandmother worked as the housekeeper there and would tell stories of the weekend hunting parties that were a regular occurrence. For her, applying this concept to wealthy teenagers killing poorer ones provided an ideal commentary on bullying, both in the flesh and online.
“There’s a certain persecution that happens if you don’t fit in a certain way,” Bennett says. “Kids can be quite brutal, and I was taking that to its extremes.”
She adds that nowadays social media has become “the new hunting ground”.
“There’s so much of the chase and the hunt about how young people treat each other online,” Bennett says.
That said, Bennett also cautions against the mindset that taking away teenagers’ phones is the solution to bullying. After all, as she says, the bullies in her book “don’t have any social media at all, what they’ve done is they’ve brought it into real life and it’s bubbled over into actual violence,” she says.
Though some may frown upon S.T.A.G.S’ disturbing content, Bennett feels it’s important people pay attention to these issues from an early age.
Soon, Bennett’s story will reach an even wider audience, as Chernin Entertainment bought the film rights to S.T.A.G.S less than a year after it was published, with Hunger Games screenwriter Peter Craig set to pen the script. Bennett also has two sequels in the works, meaning we could have an epic franchise on our hands.
But her success doesn’t stop there: this year she published her second YA novel, The Island. In it, an intelligent but athletically limited American student, Lincoln, or Link, is mercilessly bullied at his Oxford boarding school. But then, a plane crash strands him and his fellow students, including his bully, on a desert island. Here, survival depends on brains, not brawn, and Link’s ability to think his way out of problems grants him the popularity and power he’s never known before.
But it isn’t long before the power goes to his head and, soon, the bully and some of the female characters pay the price for it.
Just as S.T.A.G.S indirectly addresses online bullying, Bennett hopes that The Island will address the timely issue of abuse, particularly of women, by men in power.
Her advice to aspiring authors who want to get published is to get a literary agent, as they can tailor your book to meet what publishers want. As for writing in general, her advice is to write a lot, and to write about what you know.
“I wrote this book about a world that I knew quite well. That’s what really seemed to connect with publishers and readers.”