I’m not sure when I first heard about the bleak, dystopian future brought to life by Suzanne Collins in The Hunger Games, but I know I haven’t stopped hearing about it since.
The Hunger Games follows the story of Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year-old girl living in the nation of Panem, the country that rose up out of the ashes of what was once North America. When the book opens, Katniss has spent most of her life filling her dead father’s shoes as the head of the family. She is hardened by years of caring and providing for her mother and little sister, Prim, as they struggle to survive in the Seam, the poor side of coal-mining District 12.
The book is filled with vivid descriptions of starvation, Orwellian politics and – though it’s never mentioned outright – a deep sense of post-traumatic stress disorder afflicting both individual characters and the beaten-down society as a whole. The name of the book itself comes from a horrific event that would not be out of place in a Roman arena. Two children from each district, chosen at random once a year, are forced to fight each other to the death on live television.
At first, I tried to ignore the book, dismissing it as another forgettable entry in the buzz of momentarily popular young adult novels that I didn’t have time to read.*
It quickly became clear, however, that I was fighting a losing battle. Everyone from my little sister to my significant other kept telling me how good it was. With the movie hitting theaters, I decided it was time to read the source material.
A lot of negative assumptions are made about young adult fiction. Chief among them is the misguided notion that it’s simple drivel meant only for kids. Despite my ardent appreciation for a number of young adult novels, I often fall victim to these assumptions myself.
It was obvious, right from the start, that I had done Collins a great disservice in assuming The Hunger Games would be a forgettable fad meant only for teens. From page one, the reader is thrust into a brilliantly crafted world, made to care about the characters and – before the first chapter has even ended – hit right in the heart with more emotion than most adults are capable of handling.
The Hunger Games is part of a renaissance in young adult fiction. I see far more young adult novels of this caliber today than I did when I was actually part of the genre’s target audience. More and more authors are refusing to dumb down their writing for young readers, and Suzanne Collins is no exception.
Most books – young adult or not – try to ease the readers into their world gently. They start off slow, introducing the reader to everything that they’ll need to know to understand the plot of the book. Many even include prologues to describe what brought the characters or the world in general to this point, the point at which the readers are tuning in.
The best stories, however, create a world without having to explain it first. The Hunger Games thrusts the reader directly into the world Katniss lives in without any preparation. Important information about the world, its people and its history is doled out in small bites. These snippets of backstory are woven seamlessly into the narrative only when Katniss herself would be thinking about what, for her, is common knowledge or old memories. The ability to pull this kind of story off is rare, and Collins manages it beautifully.
Through the feelings and observations of Katniss, the reader is subjected to a world that feels absolutely and totally real. Collins presents the post-American world of Panem through her heroine so perfectly that it’s impossible to avoid becoming fully immersed in it.
The genius of this immersion goes beyond simply describing surroundings and the structure of this future world. Where The Hunger Games truly excels is in making the reader experience feelings like desperation, resignation and horror. It’s impossible to read this book without becoming emotionally invested, as if the reader themselves lived in the bleak, hopeless world that Collins has crafted.
Part of this is due to the pacing: while it never feels like the book is moving too fast, it also never lets up. With most books, I find I can skim past a small section and not really miss anything. With The Hunger Games, skipping a single paragraph causes a loss of vital information. Several times, I accidentally overlooked a paragraph or two and found that I couldn’t keep up with what was going on until I went back to read every word of the book’s rich, well-crafted story.
The Hunger Games explores themes worthy of any age group. While it examines life, politics and suffering from a perspective that younger readers can easily connect with, it does so without pulling any punches. This is a book that will have any reader on the edge of their seat, emotionally exhausted and often in tears.
This is not a book for lazy readers. And I thank Collins for that.
*Upon reading this paragraph, my girlfriend said I sounded “like a great big bag of dicks.” I’m forced to agree.