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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 FloridaRoll 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.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth 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.


  1. My only problem with Katniss’ accent is that I had absolutely no idea it existed until seeing Collins read the first chapter of Mockingjay. I might be a terrible close reader (especially for such a fast paced book) and could have missed it, but I never saw a mention of District 12 being anywhere near the Appalachian mountains and was therefore a little surprised to find out I’d missed it. (The book not being written with vernacular/dialect spelling also threw me.) It’s an interesting thing though, whether Katniss will have her accent or her olive complexion in the movie. On another level it’s also interesting to consider if an Appalachian accent would endure after the people from the Appalachian mountains were gone and the inhabitants of District 12 took their place.

  2. I so completely agree with you on this – a nice southern accent would be great. I do have to support Winn-Dixie a bit more though. Having grown up in FL (from the age of 3) I have no real discernible accent unless I choose to. With the exception of North FL (which we affectionately refer to as GA), most of FL does not have a standard accent aside from a few obvious uses of the “y’all”. My stepfather is about as FL as it gets (his family is FL and GA going back hundreds of years) and he turns the southern off and on at will. (Especially handy if dealing with a GA state trooper.) The only word he can’t hide is “hurricane”. It always comes out with a huge southern drawl which even he can’t control.

    So I guess as far as FL, I’d have to say that accents are all over the place down there. Talk about regional – are you from the north part of the state or the south or Lake Okeechobee or Miami (Hello Cuban & Haitian) or the beaches – which are everybody and everything with surfer on top. (“Duuuuude, what all are ya’ll doing today? Gonna hit some or what???”) (I actually talked like that for many years.)

    Give me some a Appalachian accent any day of the week – I think it would be lovely (to my ears anyway!)

  3. On a couple of other sites where this have been raised, someone mentioned Saoirse Ronan (Atonement; City of Ember, which I haven’t seen), who the more I think about, the more I like the idea. I also think Anna Kendrick (she may have been in Twilight, but she’s got major acting chops, or possibly Mae Whitman (Parenthood). I’d love to see Jurnee Smollett (Friday Night Lights; Eve’s Bayou) do it, though she’s a bit old for the character (who’s more in the Dakota Fanning / Abigail Breslin age group).

  4. Putting aside the question of film/tv adaptations, I don’t think it’s just southern accents that readers/listeners would take issue with. Do we imagine Clementine with a strong Boston accent dropping her Rs?

    • Elizabeth Bird says:

      That’s a good point, Eric. Like I say, it’s all newscaster accents from here to Saturday. Audiobooks would probably be the best way of testing assumptions on this matter.

      And Colleen you’re correct about Florida accents. My thinking, though, is that since AnnaSophia Robb’s father in the movie has an accent, it would stand to reason that his daughter would as well.

  5. Personally, I’m surprised about the backlash of the Appalachian accent. It made perfect sense to me. Katniss is from a coal district, people. If PanEm is the US, there aren’t a lot of places that can be. (Another place is actually the coal mining country in Pennsylvania where my family comes from — we have accents too, but they’re somewhat harder to wrangle).

  6. A lot of Florida has an accent. The southern accent isn’t so strong in the coastal parts, but there are others. I grew up in Florida and I say y’all — everyone should say y’all. English is lacking a good you plural, and my Greek professor in college, who was from England, said y’all.

    As for audio books, I just got my first audio book, and I was surprised that the performer chose to give my French-speaking French characters French accents in their dialogue. (That the German-speaking-French character got a German accent seemed right). It was so cute.

  7. Emily Calkins Charyk says:

    Isn’t the Higher Power of Lucky set in California?

    I actually think Kristin Stewart’s sharp little features are perfect for Katniss, but 1) she’s too old and 2) I don’t think she’s a very good actress. I hope they cast somebody unknown, olive skin, southern accent and all.

  8. I have a strong Southern accent, so I’m personally all for them, but they must be done correctly. Since District 12 is a mining district, I wonder why everyone is so surprised– why wouldn’t Katniss have an Appalachian / Kentucky accent? Why the issue over a Southern accent, anyway? Can you read To Kill A Mockingbird without giving Scout an Alabama twang?

  9. Like Miss Print, I don’t remember reading any dilect indicators. Like the other districts commenting on Katniss thick accent. Though it would be very cool if who ever played Katniss in the movie had an accent.

    Though, I highly don’t that will happen. Hollywood doesn’t want an actress with a Southern accent or one with olive tone skin.

    Jackson’s Pearce’s YA novel Sister’s Red is set in GA. I pictured the main characters as having an accent, since it starts in a small town before moving to the city of Atlanta.

  10. The Higher Power of Lucky is set in Texas? I thought it was the Southern California desert.

  11. Maybe it’s because I grew up in coal country– in the more northern part of the Appalachians than have southern accents though– but that was a detail that always stuck OUT for me in the HG books– “Oh yay! Appalachian coal country!” Personally I always saw District 12 as being in West Virginia (I’m from PA). It wouldn’t be a DEEP southern accent, but my West Virginian grandmother-in-law clearly has a bit of an Appalachian drawl. Seems natural to me. It also seems natural that the regional accents would be strong because of the class issues– the regional accents are stronger in the lower classes, which would definitely be the ones from the Seam.

    I think we’re so used to the bland non-accents in movies that that’s the only reason people would think an accent is wrong– they just don’t expect them anymore!

  12. I suggest (without saying it’s what I think) that the southern accent, especially Appalachian, is not so much “bad guy” as “stupid”, “racist”, and “small minded.”

    I’d have to reread THG, but I thought it was supposed to be the Appalachian coal country?

    As someone who doesn’t like reading dialect, I am so thankful Collins didn’t do that. As others mentioned, do we have to be told how someone sounds in a book?

  13. I had a prof in college who taught broadcasting. He mentioned the biases people have against certain regional accents and anecdotally told about his own experience. An old girlfriend had an uncle from Georgia. After his first very brief meeting with said uncle, the prof thought he was a dumb hick. Later, he was floored to find out that said uncle was an astrophysicist who worked for NASA! He never forgot that. The least objectionable, “proper” accent apparently is a Midwest one. Of course, I find that boring and bland. I say, give me more of the culturally rich timbres and tones of Appalacia!

  14. Well, I dunno about you, but I found that the makeout scenes with Gale and Peeta were darn sexier with an Appalachian drawl. 🙂

  15. I LOVE accents, and especially Southern accents. I think Katniss having an Appalachian accent would add even more depth of character and setting/place in the books as well as the upcoming movie.

    You can also add Kimberly Willis Holt’s Southern books to your list and my brand new one, THE HEALING SPELL, which is set in bayou country. The accent is so important that I found a Louisiana gal to do the authentic Cajun voice-over in my book trailer, and she did a spectacular job. Although, what’s so interesting about Louisiana is that every single town has a slightly different accent. And people’s accents differ according to their age, too. I find it fascinating and had fun delineating that in the three generations of family in THE HEALING SPELL.

    I’d love Lisa, my voice-over gal, to be able to do the audio for the book, but we’ll see. Fingers crossed!

  16. I grew up in the South and tried to get rid of my accent when I went away to college (largely successful — which I regret a bit now). I think you are right on about perceptions of the southern accent. And other accents have meaning too– I think most people associate intelligence with a British accent (and I know there are a variety of those, but I think most Americans don’t distinguish Cockney and other variations). I definitely associated district 12 with Appalachia and West Virginia — a place I live not too far from and have driven through quite often. I was hoping for more of an unknown for Katniss — what a potentially phenomenal role!

  17. Would that be an Appa-latch-ian accent or an Appa-lay-shun accent?

    I’d rather see a movie with no accents than a movie with a bad southern accent. I can’t tolerate those. We have people down here with not much accent, but we don’t have anybody with the outrageous Southern accent you see in some movies.

  18. I usually think of accents going hand and hand with colloquial phrasing, slang, and dialect (spelled out phonetically). If there is no colloquialism, slang, or dialect in either the narrative or dialog, then it’s hard for me in my mind’s eye to imagine the characters having distinctive accents. In the Hunger Games the presence of any phonetic dialect, slang, or colloquialism pointing to Katniss having an accent was nonexistent.

    You can also look at the language used by the secondary characters. I haven’t read Calpurnia Tate, but let’s say Calpurnia uses perfect English. Then let’s say her grandpa (or grandma) textually uses slang and dialect that would denote a southern accent. If that’s indeed the case, then it’s easier for me to hear Calpurnia’s voice tinged with a southern accent.

    As far as location goes, if the story takes place in the West Virginia/Pennsylvania area, then the accent is up for grabs. Parts of West Virginia are definitely poor rural Appalachia. But if you’re near Pittsburg, that’s totally different. The Pittsburg accent is as distinctive as you can get. I can pick out someone who has spent their life in Pittsburg from a mile away…and it’s definitely not southern…and it’s not Midwest, Philadelphia, Boston, Chicago, New York City, or New England…it’s Pittsburg! And I don’t think there is any way to mimic a Pittsburg accent through the written word.

    The movie that comes to mind when the topic of accents is brought up is Jodie Foster’s portrayal of FBI agent Clarice Starling in the Silence of the Lambs. She uses a syrupy Virginia strain of southern accent. But I didn’t feel it was forced…it was very subtle.

    So I think watching the video of Suzanne Collins first introducing her book, then hearing her morph into a very-overly-done southern accent (ala Huckleberry Finn–from deep down in the holler–Jodie Foster times ten) was indeed jolting for many.

    If Collins truly wanted her character of Katniss to have that heavy of a southern accent, she should have used the following dialect in the first page of her text: watch’n, build’n, assess’n, check’n, return’n, cooperat’n. That’s precisely how she pronounced these words in her monologue and it is really the only way for an author to give the reader the precise vocal nuances of the character, as well as the geographical and sociological local color they wish to portray.

    So instead of asking why there is such a bias against attaching accents to what can only be labeled as generic (Midwest newscaster) textual narrative and dialog, let’s turn the question on its head. Why is there a definite author (and maybe reader) bias against the inclusion of the phonetically written dialect in the text itself?

    Didn’t Harper Lee sprinkle phonetic southern dialect, slang, and colloquialism throughout To Kill a Mockingbird? Wouldn’t the use of dialect here help to flesh out the character of Katniss–her probable social status–and her geographic location background?

    If Collins had employed phonetically spelled dialect in the text, no one would have an issue with her vocal rendition of the first chapter. And no one would expect Katniss to have anything but a thick southern(Appalachain) accent in the movie.

    How pleasurable would Huckleberry Finn or To Kill a Mockingbird be without the heavy use of dialect?

    The apparent disappearance of dialect from our literature is a blog topic in itself. Is it seen as a “literary anachronism”, or is it more a result of not offending various groups in this age of “political correctness” (let’s ban Huckleberry Finn)?

  19. and Appalachian accent is like a northern new york accent. not like new york city but like upstate. or Vermont. but i disagree that either Kristin Stewart of Chloe Mortez should play. they’re not the right age, and nether of them could pull it off. They need a new artist to play Katniss. someone like me with experience that knows her way around a bow and arrow, and could actually pull off tan skin and black hair.

  20. As a person with an Appalachian accent I approve!

  21. I don’t care how Katniss looks or sounds in the movie, as long as it NOT Kristen Stewart-she is totally and truly terrible as an actress. She ruined any interest I might have had in watching the “Twilight” movies or rereading the books.

  22. How about West Virginia most famous performer Jesco ‘The Dancing Outlaw’ White for the Haymitch role?

  23. I’ve always had a problem with the voice in this series (sounds much too old and polished for a girl with no education) and now I know why–the real voice of Katniss is in Collins’ head and not on the page. Too much written dialect is distracting, but the reader needs hints of it in the narration or dialog. It’s called voice.

  24. I figure, Suzanne Collins wrote it, so she can imagine Katniss’s voice any way she likes. I didn’t start hearing her voice with an accent because of it. It’s the same thing with Harry Potter. I know all the characters in Harry Potter are British, but when I read the books, they sound exactly like me. Of course, if they had sounded like me in the movie, I would have been upset, because I’m not British.

    Also, if either of the two front runners play Katniss in the movie, I really don’t think I’ll see it. I’m already super wary about a movie version anyway.

  25. Stephanie Whelan says:

    I don’t often pay attention to accents in books unless they’re called to attention in some particular way. Doesn’t matter to me if Katniss does have an accent, its placement makes sense considering Section 12 and it doesn’t interfere with me liking or not liking the character. I will admit though I like to read my books rather than hear them through someone else because I always imagine the characters my own way.

    I only object to accents in books when they become a headache to follow and read or a crutch to the actual story. There was an adult fantasy series set on another planet where everyone continually spoke with a painful Scottish sort of accent and I finally gave up on it after the hundreth “dinna ken” etc.

  26. I’ll admit it was a bit of a shock to hear Suzanne Collins bring Katniss to life (although her accent makes perfect sense given the coal mining industry in District 12). There is something so private about the voices we instill in the characters we read about. When you hear someone else’s version of that voice, there is bound to be some kind of disconnect, whether it is the accent or something else. I almost feel sorry for whoever is cast in the movie. How can any one person live up to the many versions of Katniss that exist inside the minds of Hunger Games fans?

  27. Entertainment Weekly has an interesting Hunger Games casting blurb in this weeks issue.

  28. I was delighted to hear Gooney Bird Greene was given a southern accent (though I can’t spot which region) in the audiobooks. Now I always read her with that accent. =)

  29. Coincidentally, I just started The Hunger Games last night and it explicitly states when Katniss and Peeta board the train that they are heading to the Rockies where the capitol is located and leaving Appalachian coal country.

  30. It’s so interesting to see the different reactions to the Southern dialect. I do think it would have come as less of a surprise if Ms. Collins had included more hints of the dialect in the text. But I also think we have to ask ourselves why she didn’t. It’s common practice in today’s literature to be careful not to “overdo” dialect as it’s seen as a burden to the reader. In my own YA novel, Breathing (Viking, 2009), I chose to include the dialect as it was such an integral part of the character and her community. Stripping it away would have been a form of white-washing. Also mentioned in the post above is the issue of stereotypes associated with dialects. It’s fascinating to me that although Southern dialect (yes, I’m lumping them all together here) is the most widespread dialect in the nation (wikipedia), it is often associated with a lack of intelligence. Using dialect in literature gives us the opportunity to begin to break down these stereotypes. But its use can create an uproar, as it has here, which is why so many authors choose not to use it.

  31. They are going to have some problems with the movie then. If they need southern accent people that look like them it will be hard. I truly don’t see Katniss as a southern accent girl. It makes it sound cheesey and not real. And she doesn’t sound tough that way. Well thats my opinnoin.

  32. Lynn Craig says:

    Maybe it is time for people’s biases to change?

    This girl says Katniss is her “dream role” & she “speaks southern”

    But I love the idea of Kaniss having her own accent – it is the southern US and it is also the future… katniss is unique!!!

  33. The first book does state explicitly that District 12 was Appalachia. I’m making some notes on this now for my web site on Appalachian literature, AppLit (but haven’t read the third book yet). Although the text does not contain particular examples of dialect, I find it fascinating that Collins reads Katniss’ voice using dialect pronunciation. Of course dialects vary widely all around Appalachia as elsewhere, and dialects change over time. Another issue to consider is that this story seems to be set hundreds of years in the future (it says in one place that so much coal was already mined for hundreds of years that the miners have to go especially deep in Katniss’ time). So we can’t be too picky about whether Katniss sounds exactly like anyone in Appalachia today because her dialect in the future would be different. I’ve just gotten into this in the past couple weeks and would love to hear from anyone interested in the regional aspects of these books.


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