A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this book.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a prequel to the bestselling Hunger Games trilogy, which was turned into a movie franchise starring Jennifer Lawrence. It helps to read at least the first Hunger Games novel to know what's going on here, which is the 10th annual Hunger Games. These games look very different from the high-tech and media-spun 74th annual games of the first novel, but one thing is still the same: 24 kids from ages 12 to 18 are supposed to kill each other in an arena as a form of entertainment for the Capitol and as punishment for the oppressed districts. In this book, we watch them from outside the arena for most of it instead of inside, which creates a small buffer, but plenty of killing and violence happens before and after the competition as well. Bombs kill some and injure many. Dead and nearly dead kids are draped over horses, dragged behind them, and strung up. A girl's throat is slit, another girl is riddled with bullets. There are public hangings, shootings with deaths, and poisonous snake bites. Humans with cut-out tongues (avoxes) are discovered in a lab with animal parts grafted to them. Expect a fair amount of drinking, too. Older teens in school drink a watered-down wine at many gatherings, and soldiers drink moonshine and whiskey to excess whenever they go out. Since the main character is the future notorious dictator President Snow and the whole story is from his perspective, it takes a more mature reader to dissect the messages of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. We learn how his early years inform his twisted view of humanity.
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What's the story?
In THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES, Coriolanus Snow is part of an experiment for the 10th annual Hunger Games. He and his fellow well-connected Capitol classmates are to be the first-ever mentors to the tributes in the arena. He's disappointed when he's assigned to the girl from District 12, but takes heart during the Reaping. His girl, Lucy Gray, puts a snake down another girl's dress on her way up to the podium after her name is called and then sings a song onstage. Coriolanus needs this mentorship to go well for his own future: His family is much poorer than they'd ever admit after the war and the death of his parents, and he needs a scholarship to university. He sets out to impress everyone by meeting Lucy Gray and the other tributes when they arrive by train. He realizes his plan is a foolish one when the train arrives. A cattle car dumps 24 already starving kids chained together onto the train platform, and Peacekeepers load them onto a truck to take them to the zoo, where they will await the Hunger Games. Coriolanus jumps onto the truck with them, and it's almost the last foolish thing he ever does.
Is it any good?
Not as tightly woven as the original series, this prequel showing the notorious President Snow as a teen will still intrigue fans of dystopian novels. The whole story is from Coriolanus Snow's perspective, which gives The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes a more sinister, hopeless feel. The few redeeming qualities Coriolanus possesses at the beginning of the story erode at each desperate turn he takes. He betrays the few people who trust him, and it's disappointing even though we really should have seen it coming. The future Panem president works out new ways to make the Hunger Games "better" in the process, giving readers a glimpse of how the squalid 10th annual games turned into the theatrical and high-tech marvel of decades later.
The first part of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes deals with the blood-soaked lead-up to the games (a few tributes don't even make it to the arena) and the games themselves. After the games, the story takes an unexpected turn back to the districts. This section slows down considerably and lacks any careful buildup of tension, even though each problem Snow finds himself in digs him into a deeper hole. It's hard to say if the writing needed tightening in general or if readers just need less time in Coriolanus' head. Or maybe it would have helped to have at least one character to root for here to pull the story along at an emotional level. Lucy Gray has lost her mysterious charm by this point in the book, and Coriolanus' rebellious friend Sejanus makes one bad choice after another. It's a reminder at least that there's no one quite like Katniss, and all hope isn't really lost at the end of this tragic chapter of Panem's history. To bring back that sense of hope, you can always reread The Hunger Games.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about the perspective in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. How often do you read books where the main character is the bad guy? How does it feel as a reader to be privy to Coriolanus' thoughts?
The violence in this series has always been jarring. Is it any less jarring if you are following a character who's not in the arena like Katniss was in The Hunger Games and Catching Fire?
Would you read more about the world of Panem? If so, which character would you like to follow?
- Author: Suzanne Collins
- Genre: Science Fiction
- Topics: Activism, Friendship, Music and Sing-Along
- Book type: Fiction
- Publisher: Scholastic Press
- Publication date: May 19, 2020
- Publisher's recommended age(s): 12 - 18
- Number of pages: 528
- Available on: Nook, Hardback, iBooks, Kindle
- Last updated: July 14, 2020
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