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Children’s action books (post-Harry Potter) are all the rage right now – and no longer read by children alone. Hot on the heels of serial action books by Percy Jackson, Twilight , Golden Compass, Darren Shan, Alex Rider – all of which have movie-book tie-ups – comes the Hunger Games trilogy.
This trilogy by author, Suzanne Collins not only possibly tops the reading experience in the genre of action books – but it may yet be the best of the lot of books just in terms of its gigantuan and great human themes.
The first book “The Hunger Games” is itself an incredible book by all measures. The focus of the book is the Gladiator-like Hunger Games and arena where children representing their districts battle to the death and only one victor can remain. The Hunger Games describes a believable Orwellian world (with Animal Farm and Nineteen Eighty Four tones) where escalating disaster and catastrophe has brought the North America to a brink-of-apocalypse-world situation where famine, hunger and starvation have changed the rules of the society of Panem (which was once North America). Ruled by an oppressive Capitol, the annual gladiator-like televised survivor games for children has to take place as a microcosmic reminder to Panem’s inhabitants what the alternative society would be without the iron rule of Capitol.
Don’t let the the “Lord of the Flies“-like savagery put you off this book, the first book is nowhere as depressing as the “Lord of the Flies“. Paradoxically, the book has a life-affirming effect. While the details of the post-brink-of-apocalypse world are sufficiently and believably drawn as background information, what holds our attention is the central character of the book – an Amazon-like girl nicknamed Katniss, a mere slip of teenage girl whose father has died in a coal-mining accident. We are taken for a ride in this fascinating futuristic but not-too-far off world through her eyes, following her every the plight and struggle to survive in the Hunger Games.
While all the reviews will stress how exciting Collins’ books are, none of them will tell you why this book’s themes rise above all the others. Author Anthony Horowitz at the epilogue of his book “Necropolis” mentioned that the reason why kids’ authors tend to use orphan characters is so that the characters don’t have homes, ordinary lives and so that the characters will have to depend on their own resources. Suzanne Collins’ book is so paradoxically refreshing in that the book uses all the strong emotional ties and connections and resources to one’s own family members and community – the victors in the Hunger Games are victorious because of the support and coaching they get from their significant ones. More importantly, the whole book’s reason why we love the two main characters is that their motivation for survival (and for Katniss’ volunteering for the games even) and for each life-and-death decision they make is based on their love for their family members and specific memories of family incidents – this transforms the book from a mere action and war-game novel to a heart-wrenching and truly mind-provoking novel – not just for kids, but for adults as well. There is also a trumped-up romance orchestrated for the adults watching the hunger games to which the two main characters play along in order to win bonus baskets of survival goodies … there are a few stingily given chaste kisses, but nothing graphically sexual enough for parents concerned about smut.
Suzanne Collins writes so beautifully – I am floored by her flawless style – you have to try it as readaloud to your kids – to realize how smooth and perfect her tight and concise writing style is (probably due to her TV writing background). Also, it is unusual to find such an accomplished female author in the sci-fi action book genre, but we know a little why because the author tells of her sword-fighting training, military family background and classical roots in the Q&A for Scholastic. For tired fathers at the end of a long day, this is a perfect book for you to read-a-loud to your kids…because you won’t fall asleep! While Collins packs so much in imagery and action in so few words, there’s no dumbing down of language here… the book should be a compelling fast-paced but rich read for any age. Every chapter gets better and better with the expected twists and unexpected endings of a first-rate thriller. It manages to be a very very clever book without being verbose.
The first book in the trilogy, I think, can be read as a standalone masterpiece, but the satisfying ending still manages to set you up to want more.
The sequel, book two “Catching Fire” offers a change of pace. It was disappointing somewhat for me in that it lost some of its “thematic greatness” and my heart-strings were less tugged at. The first half of the book felt like the waiting delivery room before a pregnancy – perhaps because some of the action momentum was dissipated in the backstory of the supporting characters of the book. The book is also all about the initial transformation of Katniss into the revolutionary symbol of the Mockingjay (genetic hybrid of the mockingbird and jabberjay) for the rebels – which isn’t completed until the third and final instalment in the trilogy. The need for change in pace may have been necessary, I guess, like an Andante or Adagio movement may be needed in music, but the action pace does pick up again as Katniss returns to the arena in the second half of the book. While the first book has a more primal feel to it – the second has a sci-fi and slicker “written for the screen” feel to it (akin to the Twilight series’ “New Moon” and “Eclipse”), perhaps because it was written with a movie in already in mind. Still good reading, though I can’t help wishing the author could have done a better job of fleshing out the supporting characters and making them a little more complex. The supporting male characters and love interests still failed (imho) to transcend eye-candy status in book two.
The third book “Mockingjay” – is however, surely deserving of all the accolades (including from Stephen King, Rick Riordan and Stefanie Meyers) that have been given! All the raw-ness of human emotion and the great themes return in the final book “Mockingjay”.
Don’t worry, there’ll be no spoilers here for those of you who haven’t read the books. Just speaking in terms of general themes and effect of the book, “Mockingjay” is everything the first book was and a lot more.
The book however also deals with much more difficult and psychologically disturbing issues of a war-torn world. As such, the third book might be reserved for a more mature reader of 14 or 16 and older – where the book can constitute educational fodder for educators who want to springboard a historical discussion of war history, WWI and WWII, oppressive regimes and other current affairs issues.
Make no bones about it, this final book is darker – parents might want to think about whether younger readers are ready for the torture, carnage and literally mental madness that takes place in the air-bombed and nuked world and within the ranks of the Hunger Games victors who return as ghosts of their former selves. There is no way the coming movie (Hunger Games currently in the works) will not have some very graphic violence, blood and gore in it.
Speaking of “great human themes” however, there is a lot to take in for teen readers. There are so many themes for kids to pick out and draw parallels to our modern world/history:- the inevitable corruption of the powers that be or that will be (Orwellian themes are magnified in this book) – the terrible choices that leaders (seen through Katniss’ experience) have to make between the lesser of two evils – or the bad outcomes of well-intended actions – or the choice between the greater or higher good and individual or smaller group ones – how you can be a pawn in every gameplayer’s hand even when you are supposedly in the “good” freedom-fighters’ camp – and how at the end of the day, despite all your defiance, you are still playing by somebody’s rules or dancing to somebody’s tune.
There is also one easily missed idea – when Katniss speaks up for the “enemy” as the leaders decide en groupe whether to punish or destroy whole districts or individual captured inhabitants, she makes the point that it’s pure chance that we weren’t born in somebody else’s shoes (somebody else’s District) – you can stretch this to a message that we could have been born in North Korea or Cuba or Iraq or some other “enemy” regime. In Katniss’ relations with her small Capitol entourage, she also makes us see that to be born into the sickeningly never-want-for-anything privilege of Capitol inhabitants, can be a handicap or shortcoming in giving them blinkered perspectives and shallow personalities…but again through no fault of their own. In the one scene, her Capitol-hailing prep team are caught stealing bread and facing torture and punishment, we are reminded of Jean Valjean from Victor Hugo’s “Les Miserables” who was imprisoned nineteen years for stealing bread – except for the twist in that they are stealing bread not because they are the poor and hungry lot, but because hailing from the privileged and wealthy district, they are accustomed to eating more and the current austere lifestyle constitutes a hardship for them.
This book is darker and may not be suitable for kids at all – even though Amazon.com puts the reader age at 12 and up. But there is zero bad language and no sex in the book at all. The love interests of Katniss keep you guessing right to the very last few pages – and what’s kind of a nice twist in the trilogy is that Katniss despite being portrayed as fragile and emotionally weak, is never the damsel in distress, in fact she keeps rescuing her beaux over and over again! (Perhaps suggesting to the reader the idea that self-empowerment is the only kind of empowerment, ultimately we make the decision to live, love or act from within ourselves?) The romantic element is only resolved when a broken Katniss makes her own peace in the debris of a broken world. Katniss is transformed from the naive and young girl into a complex and conflicted character – somewhat familiar and reminiscent of the assassin character Nikita in the remake of Nikita movie. Katniss manages in the end to stoke some ambers of regenerative hope from the ashes of that mad gloomy world, she chooses life and love over suicide and death. The book suggests that mankind can still find hope in the midst of madness. A wonderfully absorbing and truly great book.
For more on the “Hunger Games” trilogy, go to the Hunger Games website at : http://www.suzannecollinsbooks.com/
By Aileen Kawagoe