After a series of disasters, North America as we know it was reformed into the future society of Panem, a Capitol surrounded by twelve districts. Following a rebellion by the districts seventy-four years ago, the Capitol instituted The Hunger Games as a reminder why they should never try something like that again. Every year during the Reaping, each district must send two tributes, one boy and one girl, between the ages of twelve and eighteen, to the Capitol to engage in a fight to the death with the last person alive being declared the victor.
Katniss Everdeen has lived her whole life on the Seam in District 12 where the primary industry is coal mining. After her father died in the mines, she became the sole caretaker for her mother and little sister, Prim. She is skilled with a bow and has managed to survive by hunting illegally outside the District fence. Katniss is used to the Reapings, but it is Prim's first time being eligible. The odds were against Prim's name being drawn, but when the worst happens, Katniss steps forward as a volunteer to take her sister's place in the Games.
Peeta Mellark is the last person besides her best friend, Gale, who Katniss would have wanted to be chosen as the other tribute. While she barely knows him and doesn't really consider him to be a friend, Peeta did show her kindness years before, which makes Katniss feel beholden to him. Katniss believes that she has no chance of surviving, but little does she know that the gentle baker's son may be her best weapon to defeat her enemies and win The Hunger Games. Still, Katniss will have to face difficult decisions in the arena that will put her humanity to the ultimate test.
The Hunger Games was another great young adult book that definitely lived up to the hype for me. It was a gripping, suspenseful science fiction story of a dystopian society in which kids between the ages of twelve and eighteen are forced by the government each year to compete in a gladiator type of fight to the death as a way to keep the citizens in line and prevent them from rebelling. There is also the beginnings of a sweet, tender romance between the two main characters, Katniss and Peeta. I wouldn't classify the book as a romance though, because this is definitely not the main focus of the story, but it is an inextricable part of it that is deftly woven throughout the plot. The first section of the book, leading up to The Hunger Games is a tad slow, but once the Games begin, it quickly becomes a taut, suspense/thriller as the characters engage in the ultimate fight for survival. From that point on, I could barely put it down, and more than once found myself reading much longer than I had intended to.
Katniss is a very intelligent girl and the first-person narrator of the story. She is a scrappy survivor who was forced into the role of caretaker for her family at the tender age of eleven, when her father was killed in the mines and her mother became deeply depressed and emotionally checked out on life. Even though her mother finally came back to them, Katniss is still understandably angry with her for not being there for them during that time, but deep down she loves her too. Katniss adores her delicate, little sister Prim and would do anything for her, including taking her place in The Hunger Games. Even though she doesn't think she has much of a chance of winning, she feels more capable of handling the Games than Prim would be. Katniss has spent so much time taking care of her family that I think she's forgotten how to just be a girl. She's had to be tough in order to keep them all alive. As a consequence, she's buried most of her emotions, but some of them begin to stir back to the surface during the Games. She doesn't even realize how alluring she is to others, instead crediting people's interest in her as nothing more than them having known her father or loving her little sister, so when Peeta admits he cares for her, she doesn't believe it. There was a part of me that wished Katniss would have a little more faith in Peeta, especially after all he'd done for her, but another part of me understood where she was coming from. She truly believed it was somehow his strategy for winning the Games, and she was also trying to distance herself from him in the event it came down to her having to kill him. When it comes to romance though, Katniss thought more like a guy. It was actually kind of amusing that she believed Peeta was just acting like he loved her, when it was obvious to pretty much everyone but her that he was completely sincere.
Peeta is a very sweet hero, who is really more of a lover than a fighter. He is the humble son of a baker and has a kind and gentle heart. Just like Katniss, he doesn't think he has a prayer of winning the Games, so any strategy he has primarily relies on playing sympathetically to the masses and also like Katniss, surviving by his wits. Peeta is an intuitive young man who sees things in Katniss that no one else does, including herself. I love the selfless way he always tries to protect her and make her look good, even though she thinks it's nothing more than his strategy for winning the Games. I also liked that he is looking for a way to use the Games to send a message to the Capitol, and how he doesn't want to allow the Games to change him into someone he's not. If he can't survive, he wants more than anything to just die with some dignity. We only get to see Peeta through Katniss's eyes, so there were a couple of times I would have liked to know a little more of what was going through his mind, but for the most part, his feeling came through loud and clear in his actions.
For the last couple years, The Hunger Games has made the top five on the ALA's most banned/challenged books list, but as a parent, I have no trouble with kids middle grades and up reading it, as long as they aren't overly sensitive to violence. In fact, my thirteen year old daughter read it before I did and had no trouble with it at all. Granted, the violence of kids killing other kids can be brutal and perhaps even disturbing, but as with many dystopian novels, the practice serves to underscore the unfairness of a governmental system that needs to be changed, which makes for a great discussion starter. As violent as the story was though, I felt it could have been much worse. It was not nearly as explicit as some violent scenes I've read in adult novels, and I believe the author held back somewhat on the details in deference to her target audience. In my opinion, it was no worse than some of the PG-13 movies that many kids in this age range are watching regularly, and definitely no worse than some of the real-life violence, such as school shootings, that kids must deal with. The big difference here is that they can process it through the safe lens of a fictional story and perhaps find some degree of empowerment. Aside from the violence, there was little else I found that could potentially be objectionable. There is no bad language, and Katniss and Peeta share nothing more than tender kisses. She does help him undress at one point, but only in the context of helping someone who is sick and injured. They also share a sleeping bag at night for warmth, but in my opinion, there was nothing sexual about either of these things at all. There is a lot of food for thought in this book as well, such as what we value as a society, and what it means when a society has devolved to the point that they view killing as sport and entertainment. There are also questions raised about what should be done when a governmental regime sanctions such brutality, as well as the importance of thinking for oneself. Overall, I would say the book is appropriate for its intended age group, especially when guided by a parent or educator.
The Hunger Games was an extremely well-written book. Normally, I'm not a fan of present tense narration, but I honestly didn't even realize until I was several chapters into the book that it was written in present tense. It was very well done, and I thought it gave the story a greater sense of urgency and immediacy which only heightened the suspense. I really felt like I was there with Katniss as she embarks on this fight for survival. I loved the characters, and I really liked how the author explored the concepts of mercy, and doing the right thing by being as moral and ethical as possible when faced with a situation that is so very wrong but from which there seems to be no means of escape. Suzanne Collins really left an impression on me with this first book of the The Hunger Games trilogy, and I can't wait to continue.
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