Friday, March 22, 2013

The Girl Who Was on Fire

Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy

When I joined Goodreads, I opened myself to a whole new world of potential reading material.  The very first book which sparked my interest through that medium was The Girl Who Was on Fire.  It is a collection of essays about Suzanne Collins' Hunger Games Trilogy written by other young adult authors.  Now, in the time since I read The Hunger Games for the first time in the spring of 2011 and definitely since the realize of the movie last year, there has much discussion about the series.  A big part of what endears me to the books is the stimulating conversation they create.  I have spent many wonderful hours debating the complexities of characters and plot.  This anthology is basically a written version of similar conversations and thoughts.  What more could a seeker of literary depth ask for?

The book was published by Smart Pop Books, a company of which I previously had not heard.  From the looks of their website, they have similar anthologies discussing just about everything: tv, movies, books, and more.  I, for one, cannot wait to get my hands on the book about LOST or the multiple volumes discussing Harry Potter.  For the moment, however, let's talk about Hunger Games.

Leah Wilson, who edited the book and wrote the introduction, put it well when she said, "We live in an era of blockbuster young adult books...[with] compelling characters, complex worlds you want to spend time exploring, [and] a focus on family and community."  Hunger Games fits this bill precisely.  In a lot of ways, Collins gave the world a coming of age story that not only not only offers Katniss' journey, but also is a coming-of-age for Harry Potter readers as well.  Many of us grew with Harry as he made his way from an awkward young student to an accomplished wizard saving the world.  Rowling teaches many wonderful lessons about friendship and responsibility through Potter, but Collins takes us a step father as her "series pushes us to grow up and take responsibility both personally and politically for our choices."  (Wilson)

There were definitely essays which I enjoyed more than others and I want to spend most of my post focusing on two in particular.   First off, Sarah Rees Brennan, author of the Demon's Lexicon trilogy, had a lot of great insight regarding the love triangle between Katniss, Peeta, and Gale.  In her essay, she questions the what the boys tell Katniss vs. their true intentions.  She verbalizes more eloquently thoughts very similar to my own when I read the books.
"Gale may in fact be the most open and honest character in the books. 'I never question Gale's motives while I do nothing but doubt [Peeta's],' says Katniss in The Hunger Games.  Suzanne Collins pulls a neat trick with Gale: he advocates throughout the three books for retaliation against the injustice of their society.  But we the reader, like Katniss, are not sure he entirely means what he says.  Gale is on the sidelines and understandably frustrated while Katniss and Peeta spend all three books in the eye of the storm.  'Back in the old days...Gale said things like this and worse. But then they were just words. Here, put into practice, they become deeds that can never be reversed.' (Mockingjay).  Suzanne Collins tells us how Gale is, and yet we do not quite realize it until the third book, when he turns his words into actions and thereby loses Katniss forever - by being the person he told her he was all along." (Brennan)
Breenan has nailed it.  From the start of the first book, circumstances place Katniss in a natural position of trust with Gale and distrust with Peeta.  Gale hunts with her, is her confidant, and helps provide for their families.  Peeta, on the other hand, has been placed in a position with Katniss where one of them must die, perhaps at the hands of the other.  She has no reason to trust him.  Their relationship over the course of the trilogy is fraught with situations in which it is in their best interest to deceive each other.  Gale has no reason to be anything but honest about his hatred for the Capitol and his desire for retribution.  Yet, because of the roles they play in her life, Katniss refuses to believe Peeta's good intentions and cannot believe Gale's poor ones.  Collins' eternal theme of reality vs. illusion, which is never more clear than when Peeta questions his reality in Mockingjay, is evident once again.  If we are playing to typical literary stereotypes,
"The tall, dark, and handsome, aloof and mysterious boy who really connects with you even though all the ladies want him is a very appealing type.  The figure of the 'baker,' blond, sweet Peeta, is much less intrinsically alluring than the figure of the 'hunter.' Gale's surface makes him extremely popular with readers, but the whole point of the Hunger Games is all the things going on beneath the surface." (Brennan)
But Collins is not interested in stereotypes.  She echoes again and again the message of reality vs. illusion.  In her essay later in the book, Elizabeth M. Rees says, "The whole series, and Peeta and Katniss' entire relationship, is fraught with the challenge of distinguishing reality from unreality."  Really, when Peeta is brainwashed by the Capitol,
"his position is horrifying, and yet it is just a magnified version of everyone's position in the Hunger Games - of our own positions as consumers of entertainment that pretends to reflect reality.  The refrain 'Real or not real?' is simply a vocalization of the ultimate question of the Hunger Games, and it is a question with any definite answer." (Brennan)
Bringing this message off the page and into our own reality, we see this question demonstrated by today's reality television.  Many of the authors touch on this point.  Lili Wilkinson spends her whole essay discussing the relationship between reality TV and the Hunger Games.  She points out that they are both "all about putting people in difficult situations and watching how they react."  Mary Borsellino talks about how "The Hunger Games series very consciously plays with the fact that it follows not only Orwell's novel [1984], but also the entertainment revolution it inadvertently spawned."  The Gamemakers' manipulation of the events in the Hunger Games does not stray far from the creative editing of television producers or even newscasters.  In fact, Collins' has said that she received inspiration for the books by flipping back and forth between reality television and news coverage of the war. Brennan has it exactly right: "Real or not real?" is the question not only of Gale vs. Peeta but of The Hunger Games vs. our culture.

When discussing The Hunger Games, or any young adult series of late, the conversation always seems to end up discussing the romance factor.  This topic obviously sparks good discussion and can lead to great insight about the characters, as seen in Brennan's essay.  But Jennifer Lynn Barnes, author of Raised By Wolves, balks at choosing between Team Peeta or Team Gale.  Instead, she advocates on behalf of Team Katniss.  She points out that " readers, we're becoming so used to romantic conflict taking center stage that we focus in on that aspect of fiction even when there are much larger issues at play."

Collins obviously chose Katniss to be her main character and storyteller.  She devotes much of the series to Katniss' struggle to find herself.  As Barnes points out,
"When people sit around debating who Katniss should choose, maybe what they're really debating actually is her identity - and the romance is just a proxy for that big, hard question about the ever-changing, unaware girl on fire."
It is difficult to pin Katniss down.  Of course, it does not help that she is our narrator and is often confused about her identity herself.  When I read the series, Mockingjay ranks lowest in my enjoyment rankings.  For the whole series, Katniss has been shown unconditional love by those closest to her.  This, in turn, causes us to love her.  Naturally, she is not the lovable type; she is brash and stubborn.  Cinna, Haymitch, and Effie deal with this when trying to make Katniss attractive to the public.  She does not have a winning personality. Yet, the love others have for her, endears her to others, both on and off the page.  Suddenly, however, in Mockingjay, she is truly alone for the first time.  Her mother and sister are busy helping in other places in District 13 and, eventually, Prim is gone.  Peeta is held captive by the Capitol, brainwashed, and out to kill her.  Gale is showing his true colors and wants her to join him in violent revenge against the Capitol.  Without anyone left to show her unconditional love, Katniss is a far less appealing and sympathetic character.  Her voice can be frustrating to read.  It feels lost and rushed.  At first, I attributed this to Collins' sloppy attempt to finish the series; but now I think it speaks more to Katniss' state of being.  By the end of the series, she is broken.  "Katniss isn't the kind of hero we're used to seeing in fiction...She limps across the finish line when we're used to seeing heroes racing." (Barnes)
"Katniss is, at her core, a survivor - a fact that is reinforced by her very name. In stark contrast to Prim and Rue, who were both named after pretty, delicate flowers, Katniss was named after a root - one that can be eaten like a potato, leading her father to have once commented that as long as Katniss could find herself, she'd never starve (ironic, given that Katniss spends much of the series trying to figure out who exactly she is). It's a practical name: no frills, no fuss, all about the bottom line." (Barnes)
Katniss is an incredible character.  She is her own person, strong enough to rebuff the opinions of others and stay true to herself.  As Ned Vizzini points out in his essay, "A truly authentic hero would not care what others thought; he or she would be comfortable enough to ignore the chatter of digital friends and strangers in lieu of the strength of his or her convictions."  And yet, we spend so much time discussing her exclusively in the context of her romantic relationships.  "If this were a book about a boy who takes his brother's place at that first reaping, I wonder if we would all be sitting around talking about who he should be with, rather than who we think he should be." (Barnes)

As you can see, this anthology is packed with real, deep discussion about the series.  To reiterate, there were some essays that I did not enjoy as much or did not find as insightful; but, overall, I thoroughly enjoyed the intellectual conversation started by these authors.  Each of them offers a unique perspective and approach to the stories.  Still, the root of it all goes back to the original series.  None of this discussion would have been possible without it.  Collins wrote a series both entertaining and engaging - my favorite kind.  

What are your thoughts on The Hunger Games? Do you enjoy discussing the deeper meanings behind popular books?  What do you think about how Collins portrays the battle between reality and illusion?  Whose team are you on?  Team Peeta? Team Gale? Team Katniss?

Pages: 210
Date Completed: March 1, 2013


  1. That was great, Alise. Sounds like an interesting read! Are you doing a reading goal again this year?-Kristen

    1. I'm not aiming for 52 again this year (mostly because I'm hoping to start grad school soon-ish), but I do have a new goal! You can read about it here: