Wednesday, January 12, 2011

The Hunger Games

Titles: The Hunger Games; Catching Fire; Mockingjay

Author: Suzanne Collins

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: Ages 16 and up

I'm naturally skeptical about glowing reviews, best-seller lists, and celebrity endorsements. When I hear a book is addictive and a reader can't put it down, or it was a cliff-hanger and a reader couldn't wait for the sequel I tend to think the reader is weak-willed, more than thinking the author is uber-amazing. So I approach books like The Hunger Games with more neutral, but not necessarily lower, expectations.

I'm pleased to say this is one series that delivers as promised. The Hunger Games is the sort of book where you don't really care what the kids do all day--just as long as they let you read!

Reminiscent of both The Lottery (short story by Shirley Jackson) and Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games takes us through a young woman's agonizing choices in a post-apocalyptic America. Katniss Everdeen sacrificially takes her sister's place in the country's annual Hunger Games, an over-the-top reality show watched by an entire nation. In this reality game, real lives are lost as there can be only one surviver.

The plot sounds violent and futuristic, but Collins handles the storyline with tact and the reader with care. Graphic details are rarely provided, particularly in the first 2 books. The story is advanced more by relationship and psychology than by violence or gore.

The series is full of covert and overt references to Roman Coliseum days, as well as our own current voyeuristic age. Readers are left to grapple with several themes: loyalty, the limits of just war, the role of government, superficial appearances, even their relationships with food, entertainment, and other excesses.

The concluding title, Mockingjay, becomes more graphic as the reader encounters a world where nothing is as it appears, and almost nothing makes sense. Except for love (or, a Christian would say, God) suicide would be a reasonable, logical choice. Collins is a master at creating impossible circumstances for her protagonists, and then writing them a way out of it. The reader never has to fear a completely bleak conclusion.

Collins has remade a fascinating America. Eventually some of the science fiction inventions feel a little unbelievable, but the reader is willing to suspend disbelief because Collins has also weaved relationship into the story. These are characters we relate to and believe in and we care to see what happens to them, even in the most difficult of circumstances.

Scholastic markets these books for as young as middle-school, but young adults are a more accurate audience. If your teens are reading 1984 or Fahrenheit 451, The Hunger Games is also a reasonable choice. Younger kids can enjoy Collins' Gregor the Overlander series. Read that review here.

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