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The Hunger Games

Life is not easy for 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen.  Since her father’s death in a mine accident, she’s been the sole provider for her mother and her little sister, Prim.  Life is always precarious in District 12, the poorest district in the country of Panem (a post-apocalyptic version of the United States) ;  food is scarce but hunting outside the fence that surrounds them is forbidden.  That doesn’t stop Katniss and her best friend Gale, though, and the game they bring in is food on the table and something to trade on the District’s black market.   Things are difficult under the Capitol’s harsh rule, but Katniss is as happy as she can imagine being, until one moment in the town square changes everything.

The Hunger Games is the first book in a trilogy by Suzanne Collins.  It tells the story of Katniss’s choice to submit herself as a Tribute in her little sister’s place.  She will enter the Hunger Games, in which 24 children, a boy and a girl from every district, go into the arena to compete in a prolonged televised fight to the death.   There can be only one winner:  the last tribute standing.  The Hunger Games have been going on for over 70 years, a reminder to the districts that their long-ago rebellion against the Capitol had a price; they will never win, and their lives can be forfeit at any time.

The Hunger Games is gripping, fast-paced, and exciting.  Katniss is truly one of the best literary heroines I’ve encountered.  She’s strong and brave but she still gets scared.  She doesn’t want to do this, but when Prim’s name is called at the Reaping, the annual announcement of which children will be entered into the Hunger Games, she instantly volunteers to take her sister’s place.  Katniss knows she has no real hope of coming out of this alive; other, wealthier districts train their children to be killing machines, whereas Katniss and the others in District 12 have been too busy simply trying to keep from starving to death.  But Katniss goes to the Games determined to come back alive, or at least go down fighting.

I loved this book.  I loved watching Katniss blossom from a scared but determined young girl to a strong, capable heroine, and I loved that nothing is predictable.  Katniss enters the arena scared and she stays scared – her life is at stake, after all – but the story only deepens as we get to know the other players, including Peeta, the other District 12 Tribute, and Rue, an 11-year-old girl from District 11 who reminds Katniss of her own little sister.  The Tributes form uneasy alliances as they figure out their strengths and weaknesses, and it’s Peeta’s unexpected strength – and his best kept secret – that starts them down a path that ensures that neither they nor the Hunger Games will never be the same again.

The Hunger Games has something for everyone – a touch of romance, plenty of dystopian adventure – but it’s not always an easy book to read.  People – children – die in this book, and their deaths are not easy.  The Hunger Games is dark and scary but not gory; there’s graphic action, but Collins doesn’t linger on the violence.  She treats it in a very matter-of-fact way.  She shows us the toll that violence takes, not just on the person who suffers but also the one inflicting the suffering.  The story never gets heavy-handed, and it never feels like you’re learning a valuable lesson at the expense of a great story.  But Collins shows us Panem’s hunger for violence, a hunger that could be seen as a mirror image of our own.  She also shows us the disposable nature of humanity in a world that values only a chance for distraction from their own misery, regardless of the pain of others, a world where we we can no longer distinguish between “reality” TV and the very real horrors happening around the world.

The Hunger Games is smart, fast and intense, and ends in one heck of a cliffhanger.  I found myself gasping out loud or cheering these characters on as they fought to stay alive and not lose their own humanity in the process.  Luckily, the sequel, Catching Fire, and the third and final book in the trilogy, Mockingjay, are both out, so you can see how the story ends!  Check back for reviews of both books.

School Library Journal rates this Grade 7+

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