The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins is one of those books that seems to pop up everywhere. It’s at the front of all the major bookstores, is mentioned with envy at every writer’s conference, and was featured prominently in a recent New Yorker article on the rise of the dystopian kid lit novel. The Hunger Games had caught my attention, but it didn’t make it onto my list until I saw my 12-year-old niece reading it. She was even nice enough to buy me a copy of it last Christmas, though I’ve only just now snatched it from the shelf.
Once I dug in, it didn’t take long to understand why the book gets such rave reviews from all corners. This is not a book that’s read, so much as swallowed by the spoonful. The story follows 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen. It’s set in a future society in the North American Rockies, following some unspecified cataclysmic event. A rich capital city is surrounded by 12 provinces, all overrun with varying degrees of impoverishment. Each year, to keep the provinces in line, there is a lottery that selects two children from each province to become contenders in the namesake Hunger Games. It’s a critique of our reality-TV-drenched society, only in this world the games are a fight to death… between kids. Last one alive wins. Katniss, of course, ends up as a contender for her coal-mining province, the poorest of the poor.
Collins does a superb job of launching the plot from the first page, but offers much more than just relentless story. The reader quickly develops deep empathy for these characters. While Collins never does stop throwing rocks–sometimes quite literally–at her beloved Katniss, the book also has highly reflective moments for her. These come crashing to an end, long before they get boring, with some new disaster that Katniss must claw her way out from under.
One of the most striking things about this book is how it deals with death, which is featured rather prominently and sometimes almost gruesomely for a kid’s book. Collins hasn’t created a moving novel on mortality like Tuck Everlasting, or one that reflects on humanity’s weaknesses like The Lord of the Flies, but she does pluck at something more profound than just the heartstrings. I highly recommend it for kids and adults alike, just slightly older kids. It’s not a good candidate for bedtime reading for truly little ones. The sequel, Catching Fire, was released late last year, and we’ll probably all hear a great deal–perhaps too much–about the third book in the series, Mockingjay, when it’s released this August.