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A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
Lots of food for thought on what principles guide a totalitarian regime. Many mentions of poem "Lucy Gray" by William Wordsworth, plus singing of some classic folk tunes, including "Keep on the Sunny Side."
Dr. Gaul says to Coriolanus, "Who are human beings? Because who we are determines the type of governing we need." Coriolanus becomes convinced that government needs to maintain absolute control to keep our crueler instincts in check. Given how much Coriolanus' sense of right from wrong deteriorates as he arrives at this conclusion, readers will see things much differently.
Positive Role Models
Coriolanus is about the worst friend or boyfriend imaginable, but that's kind of the point. He values his own status and comfort above loyalty to his friends, and he breaks their trust repeatedly. He considers his girlfriend property and is easily jealous. He makes bad decisions that he can often cover up by being charming and cunning and is not above resorting to murder. His friend Sejanus has a more solid moral compass, but makes rash choices that put others in danger.
Violence & Scariness
Hunger Games event plays out with kids as young as 12 fighting to the death in an arena, but this time main character is mostly outside looking in instead of part of the games. Kids are killed with axes, tridents, poison, rabies, snake venom. A boy is bludgeoned to death with a board. Minimal detail of violence overall -- e.g., tines of a trident buried deep and a skull split, bodies left in arena and lined up. Bombs kill some, injure many. Dead and nearly dead kids are draped over horses, dragged behind them, strung up. A girl's throat is slit, another girl is riddled with bullets. Public hangings, shootings with deaths, more snake bites. Humans with cut-out tongues (avoxes) are discovered in a lab with animal parts grafted to them. Mention of how Coriolanus' parents died: in the war and in childbirth. Stories of near-starvation during the war, how a neighbor resorted to cannibalism by eating the maid.
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Sex, Romance & Nudity
Kissing, and a mention that Coriolanus once had a tryst in an alley behind a train station after a night of drinking. Innuendo about women trading sex for food and other necessities.
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"Ass" and "jackass."
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Drinking, Drugs & Smoking
Lots of drinking by those about to graduate and go to university. They drink posca at school functions, something described as fairly weak wine. Soldiers do the heavy drinking, trying moonshine and whiskey when they go out and spending weekends hung over. A teacher is addicted to something called "morphling," which sounds like it's morphine.
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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.
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.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.