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A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Beginning with elements of the Theseus myth, where a leader demands sacrifice from young people in his country, author Collins highlights gaps between the wealthy and poor in a dystopian society with contemporary political and social trends set within a reality show competition. Great discussion starters for middle-school and up book groups, in which students will quickly make fruitful connections to our own society. Readers also learn a bit about how to survive in the wilderness.
Love of and loyalty to family, friends, and community are powerful motivations. Compassion, humanity, bravery, and integrity are the seeds of rebellion and hope for oppressed people. This book shows the media at its manipulative worst, using contestants as pawns to both shock and entertain, and is a reminder to analyze messages critically.
Positive Role Models
Katniss is a strong and capable warrior who bravely takes the place of her younger sister in the deadly competition. Peeta is committed to keeping Katniss alive and risks death to stay true to himself. Both persevere through many dangers. Supporting characters such as Haymitch and Effie, while flawed in their own ways, are encouraging and caring mentors and help coach Katniss and Peeta through the games.
Katniss Everdeen, a teenage girl who's up against the crushing force of her government, is the heart and soul of the story. She isn't restrained by gender norms as she hunts and provides for her family back home, yet she's forced into a feminine stereotype in her love story with Peeta, her fellow tribute, as she struggles to survive the games. Most characters, especially the wealthy and privileged groups in each district, are implied to be White. But Katniss and others from District 12 are described with olive skin, dark hair, and gray eyes, and Rue and Thresh from District 11 are Black. Spoiler alert: Peeta's leg is amputated at the end of the story, and he learns to live with the disability.
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Violence & Scariness
For a story about 24 kids forced to kill each other for entertainment, the gore level is lower and less bloody than expected -- but there is some. Teens are speared, shot with arrows, stabbed, mauled by wild animals, burned, and have their heads smashed and their necks broken. Injuries are realistic, including burn blistering, blood poisoning, and gangrene with plenty of pus. A boy's face is mauled to the point that Katniss describes it as a "hunk of meat where his mouth was," and someone twitches to death from bad insect stings. Mention that a leg had to be amputated. Talk of past games and what happened with the story of one boy trying to eat the bodies of those he killed. Also talk of the oppression experienced by those who don't live in the Capitol, with rampant starvation, tongues being cut out, public whippings for people trying to eat the food that they grow, and a boy getting shot for taking a pair of glasses. Many detailed descriptions of how Katniss' father died in a mining explosion and how her family almost starved afterward when her mom fell into a depressive state.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Characters kiss and have crushes, and a love story between two tributes is a central theme in this survival story. Mentions of bare bodies in the context of healing wounds.
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"Hell," plus descriptions of cursing that don't appear in text.
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Products & Purchases
No product placements in the book, but this is the story that spawned a multibillion dollar franchise of several movies with accompanying games, toys, and other merch in its marketing.
Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Adults drink, and one key character is often drunk (it's implied that he abuses alcohol to cope with trauma). A 16-year-old teen tries wine but doesn't like the fuzzy feeling it gives her and switches back to water.
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Parents Need to Know
Parents need to know that The Hunger Games is a best-selling story about a dystopian society where the government forces 24 kids to kill one another until only one remains. The main Hunger Games series of three books was adapted into four movies starring Jennifer Lawrence. Even though many teen characters die -- by spear, rock, arrow, knife, fire, animal stings, poisoning, and more -- there are few truly gory moments. Perhaps the worst is when a boy's face is mauled by animals to the point that main character Katniss says there's a "hunk of meat where his mouth was." There are stories about the daily hardships and violence experienced by everyone outside the privileged Capitol, including how Katniss' father died in a mining explosion. Adults drink, including one key adult character who's frequently drunk. Characters kiss and have crushes. Language includes "hell," and there are descriptions of cursing that don't appear in the text. Kids' readiness for this kind of premise depends on their ability to read for a deeper meaning, and there are many layers here to discuss, including how compassion, humanity, courage, and integrity are the seeds of rebellion and hope for oppressed people.
Is It Any Good?
Author Suzanne Collins blends elements that are both classical and modern to produce a story that, if not entirely new, still bears her unique imprint. Beginning with elements of the Theseus myth, she mixes in a large dollop of Battle Royale by Koushun Takami, elements of Shirley Jackson's The Lottery, reality TV shows like Survivor, and political and social trends. But she makes the resulting story her own, and The Hunger Games avoids feeling derivative through her poignant characters and the complex interplay of personal feelings and political machinations.
Collins does all this in the context of an all-out action-thriller that's told in straight-ahead yet subtle prose with a carefully calibrated level of edgy violence that doesn't go over the line. A story of teens massacring one another could, in the hands of a different author, have been overly sensational. But by keeping the focus relentlessly on the personal, Collins makes it both moving and thought-provoking. The Hunger Games will be a terrific discussion starter for middle-school literature groups, in which students will quickly make connections to contemporary society.
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