Mockingjay – Suzanne Collins

MockingjayReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 3
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

Goodreads summary:

Katniss Everdeen, girl on fire, has survived, even though her home has been destroyed. Gale has escaped. Katniss’s family is safe. Peeta has been captured by the Capitol. District 13 really does exist. There are rebels. There are new leaders. A revolution is unfolding.

It is by design that Katniss was rescued from the arena in the cruel and haunting Quarter Quell, and it is by design that she has long been part of the revolution without knowing it. District 13 has come out of the shadows and is plotting to overthrow the Capitol. Everyone, it seems, has had a hand in the carefully laid plans–except Katniss.

The success of the rebellion hinges on Katniss’s willingness to be a pawn, to accept responsibility for countless lives, and to change the course of the future of Panem. To do this, she must put aside her feelings of anger and distrust. She must become the rebels’ Mockingjay–no matter what the personal cost.

Let’s start with the good: Katniss clearly struggles with post-traumatic stress disorder and is heavily impacted by the death and destruction caused in her wake. She goes a little crazy at times, and it is hard to watch her deteriorate and change from the level-headed (if not confused) and determined girl to the Katniss she develops into as a result of being in two Hunger Games and watching thousands of people die, which is incredibly realistic. The most amazing part is that, despite the strength of President Coin and the Capitol, Katniss is never a pawn – at least not completely. She becomes the Mockingjay because the government of District 13 wants her to, but she does so on her terms. She makes up the rules as she goes and always acts according to her heart and head. She is never without agency, which could have been easily stripped from her.

I also loved the further development of characters such as Haymitch, Prim, Joanna, and Finnick. Even though Haymitch and Katniss never got along well, I think Haymitch loved her at least a little. I was a bit upset, though, that Katniss didn’t mourn Finnick’s death more than she did. He’s a fascinating character who we don’t really understand until reaching this book.

The bad: It was difficult having Katniss so desperate and weak for a majority of the book. Mockingjay in general is very dark, more so than the other two. It deals with the heavy subjects of morality, fault, drug abuse, and mental illness more than the other books (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing) which were more about staying alive and being with those you love. Basically, I just didn’t think it was very interesting. The epilogue wasn’t as terrible as the one in Harry Potter, but it would have made me facepalm if I hadn’t been listening to the audiobook while driving.

Mockingjay reminds us that there is no limit to the atrocities humans can impart on each other. History can always repeat itself.

As far as teen romances go, it was interesting that Collins made loveable, loyal Peeta into sort of a monster. It was so hard to take in this dramatic change of the boy with the bread (there’s a soft spot for him in all our hearts, admit it). Although he and Katniss do reach a sort of happily ever after, it’s not perfect, and they are both forever damaged, which is, again, quite realistic.

I’d still recommend Mockingjay for middle and high school even though the subject matter seems to stray a bit from YA to more adult issues (PTSD, drug abuse…). Despite Haymitch’s continued alcohol abuse and the morphling abuse of Katniss and Joanna, I don’t think it’s inappropriate for young students because it’s quite clear that substance abuse does terrible things to people.

Lastly, I’m interested how the Mockingjay movie will turn out with Peeta no longer being loveable and Katniss no longer being very sane.

Catching Fire – Suzanne Collins

Catching_fireReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 2
Genre: Dystopian
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

First of all, re-reading Catching Fire made me appreciate Katniss and Peeta as characters all the more. I feel like I know and appreciate them now that I’ve taken my time to get through the series again. Now there is no doubt that Peeta is in love with Katniss and would sacrifice himself for her, because he has more faith in her than she has in herself. I’m confused, though, why he loves her so incredibly much. The first time they have any real contact is in the Hunger Games the previous year, and half of what they said and did was staged, while another chunk was them fighting. Anyway…

Katniss just keeps on getting increasingly complex, but in a painfully realistic way. Although she struggles with how she feels about Peeta, she really does love and respect him, even if she’s not in love with him or even Gale. Her determination to keep Peeta alive shows us this. It’s terribly painful as they’re in the Quarter Quell and are trying their best to keep each other alive at the expense of themselves.

Catching Fire also truly begins to show us how evil the Capitol is. We don’t hear much from President Snow or other important figures. Most of what we know is speculation about how the Capitol operates, which makes the whole government seem even more dangerous. Only a truly evil person (or government) could force loved ones, children, the elderly, and the sick to fight against each other, only to cause the victors to go insane, drown the memories in alcohol, or take drugs to forget. Suzanne Collins brilliantly creates such a heinous entity without showing much about it.

Fan girls around the world are drooling over Finnick Odair. Like Katniss, I didn’t really like him (or Johanna Mason) to begin with. He is an interesting character because he is definitely not what he appears: an attention-loving, womanizing, self-loving man. In this book alone we learn that who he really loves, what he’s willing to risk, and that he is trustworthy, never mind that whole “sugar cube” bit at the beginning that was completely and utterly flirtatious in a rather disgusting way. Johanna is even redeemed by her keeping Katniss and Peeta alive even though she clearly doesn’t like Katniss one bit.

And poor Gale. He never stood a chance.

See the post about The Hunger Games for a discussion of appropriateness for schools and English language learners. I could say the same things about Catching Fire as I did The Hunger Games, except that this text is less violent than its prequel.

Edit: I ended this post feeling as though it was severely lacking. That is, I found myself unable to say many critical, smart comments. Now that I’ve had a few days to think about it, I believe that part of the problem was that this book is much more focused on the love triangle and confused emotions, which is pretty lackluster and typical of YA fiction. Don’t get me wrong, I really really really loved this book. Katniss just isn’t quite as enjoyable or tough. Or, if she is, it’s countered by her confusion about love. And as much as I adore Peeta, there isn’t much substance to him. He’s fighting to keep alive a girl he hardly knows; that’s about all we know about him. Oh, and he’s good at public speaking. I still feel for Peeta because he loves Katniss so much, but all he gets in return is confusion and sometimes hostility. I think that my 5-star rating of Catching Fire and my general love of it comes from the real way that Katniss is portrayed along with our growing knowledge of the Capitol despite the love triangle aspect, which gets us nowhere and is, to me, rather annoying.

The Hunger Games – Suzanne Collins

The Hunger GamesReading level: 7
Series: The Hunger Games series book 1
Genre: Dystopian, romance
ELL-Friendly: Yes
Library recommendation: Middle or high school

I read The Hunger Games trilogy all in one go a few years ago and was inspired to re-read all the books now that the Catching Fire movie is coming out in a few months. As I re-read The Hunger Games, I realized how much I had missed and simply forgotten by reading so quickly. As with the Divergent series, I read as fast as possible just to know what happened next – the mark of a great series! So re-reading was a treat as I compared the movie to the book and re-examined my thoughts about the character of Katniss, the purpose of the Hunger Games, and the love triangle of Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.

I was rather surprised by Katniss’ fragility and humanness. For some reason, I had made her into an infallible, tough-as-nails girl. This book made me appreciate her character as being so realistic. She’s a typical 16-year-old girl in that her feelings are confusing and she has very real fears. But she really is an incredible female role model: she’s smart, brave, adventurous, loyal, honest, and independent. If possible, I love her even more.

The romance between Katniss and Peeta continues to confuse me. Does Peeta really love Katniss? I know what happens to them in the end, but I was never sure if it was genuine. During my re-read, I paid close attention to small details regarding their feelings for one another, and whereas I doubted Peeta’s genuine love for Katniss, I’m pretty darn sure he does love her or at least always had a crush on her. Maybe his love confession was part of his strategy in the Hunger Games, but I don’t think he revealed his love just to make him (or Katniss) look good and to increase his chance at coming back alive.

This series has been banned in a lot of schools. For one, Haymitch is drunk most of the time, and that’s not a good thing for students to read, right? Well, drinking isn’t glorified, and it clearly gets in his way, not to mention contributes to his humiliation. Furthermore, Katniss and Peeta, our true heroes, are continually frustrated with Haymitch’s drinking. Once we get into Catching Fire and beyond, readers can see that he drinks to escape reality. It’s not just pointless and excessive drinking just because.

But really, the issue parents and administrators are having is that kids are killing each other in these books. The message here is that the government (the adults) are the real monsters, turning kids into killers for entertainment. The entire series, especially after the first book, is about rebellion and stopping the brutal murders of minors.

The killing scenes aren’t even that graphic. The only book that gave me nightmares when I was in middle school was Where the Red Fern Grows where one of the young boys gets hit with an axe and dies. I remember that scene fairly well even now, and, if my memory serves me well, none of the killing scenes in The Hunger Games were as graphic as that. The most gruesome of the scenes as where Katniss was trying to tend to Peeta’s leg. Furthermore, when Katniss kills anyone, she feels bad and continues to focus on the real enemy: the Capitol.

I think it’s important for this series to be in classrooms because kids love it. If it gets kids to read, especially reluctant readers, it has value. And as I said before, Katniss is a great female lead and role model – infinitely better than Bella in the Twilight series. And you know what? Scholastic says that the “interest level” is 6th grade. Not that Scholastic has the final word, but perhaps this company’s opinion can carry some weight.