…no, not the Dunderhead’s discussion, but the novel by Suzanne Collins.
Plenty of Spoilers follow.
Readers of this blog last year will remember I was unmoved by suggestions of The Hunger Games as Newbery material. I enjoyed the book a lot…just found it very flat and manipulative. Nevertheless, I was eager to get my hands on Catching Fire, and though I found a trace of the same complaints, this sequel "redeemed" its prequel in my eyes. Newbery? I’m not sure. Let’s talk about it.
THEME & AGE
Collins explodes her plot, allowing her to carry her theme to much more interesting places. What is the responsibility of an individual to her community? What is one’s community…how do you act responsibly towards those you’ve never met and know little about? What is it to love another person, and what are your responsibilities towards someone who loves you? Are where does ones responsibility to oneself enter into all of these questions? All of these questions are at the heart of Cinna’s new outfit for Katniss as she parades for the Quarter Quell, when he remarks: "I think your days of pink lipstick and bows are behind you" (p. 207 ARC)
The romantic back and forth between Katniss and her two love interests will be right up the alley of Stephanie Meyer’s fans, and similarly goes about as far as you can still being totally chaste. Katniss and Peeta "sleep" together, but it’s very clear that is literal. They cuddle, period. Until p.352 in the ARC when a kiss "grows warmer and spreads out from my chest, down through my body, out along my arms and legs, to the tips of my being. Instead of satisfying me, the kisses have the opposite effect, of making my need greater. I thought I was something of an expert on hunger, but this is an entirely new kind." This is the raciest scene.
From a Newbery perspective, is this excellent "presentation for child [defined as including age 14] audience"? I don’t know. It’s certainly "suitable" for tweens, but that’s not the question. While the romance seems perfectly pitched to that early-adolescent stage, the questions of social responsibility seem to want to reach beyond it. Not that a child won’t grasp or be interested by these questions, but do the issues reach their full potential with a child? Because to me those questions are what elevate the book and make it interesting. This is right on the line for me, and seems the perfect example to tackle the question in the Newbery Manual appendix:
"…exactly what 14-year-olds would respond to it, and why? A book may be considered even though it appeals to a fairly small part of the age range if the committee feels that … it is so distinguished that everyone of that age should know the book."
Is it "so distinguished?"
PLOT & "SEQUELITIS"
Plot is clearly Collins’ strength. It’s what makes me keep reading when I get off the bus, for the several blocks walk back home, and Catching Fire passed that personal test. The plot here is in three distinct parts, and to me is "distinguished" when it is taken as a piece of an arc that includes The Hunger Games and the as-yet-unpublished third book in the series. And to me that’s fine.
But how can the Newbery Committee evaluate such a plot? "Sequelitis" can be a problem at the Newbery table, since members are bound to only discuss and consider books published that year. This is the "stand alone" question. No where to the criteria say a work must stand alone, but the very purposeful focus on the single year’s books forces that question. Sequels have been honored with a Newbery Medal. But works like The High King and The Grey King have more complete plot and character arcs, and do, more or less, "stand alone." It’s in recent history, AHP (after Harry Potter), that we see more and more sequels that are true series, and need to be read in order. Jonathan wrote about Sequel Prejudice in The Horn Book a couple of years ago, but I don’t think we’ve overcome it.
Theoretical question: If Hunger Games and Catching Fire and the third book were all published in the same year…could one then consider just one title if it’s plot was interdependent on the other two eligible books?
STYLE, MANIPULATION, & FORGETABILITY
I continue to be unwowed by Colllins’ writing, which is extremeley competent, but lacks "flesh." It is flat, like Reality TV, which similarly strives to make us believe it’s real but fails. You buy into the delusion, but it doesn’t last. "Setting" is arguably the most important element of Fantasy/SciFi, and the hardest to pull off. I don’t think Collins’ does. In the scheme of most things, it’s not a deal-breaker, but in the scheme of the Newbery it might be.
Some of this I’m still having a hard time articulating, but: while I was always eager to get back to Catching Fire, I often found myself drifting, or innattentive, or bored, while actually reading it. How that happens I do not quite know, but the overwhelming feeling was of never been gripped by the words on the page or the scene at hand…only ever wanting to know what happens next. This is compounded for me by the transience of the plot in my mind. I read this ARC a few months ago, and last week found that I could not remember a single plot element. On the one hand this made it an enjoyable re-read….but I even forgot things during the reading. Who was Seneca Crane and why did Katniss hang a dummy of him? I had to go back and check.
Also–need help here–what happens to Chaff? He’s out there a loner in the arena…then what? I don’t recall him on the Hovercraft, or mentioned as being picked up by The Capitol. Maybe I just missed it. Maybe Collins’ deliberately left a thread of mystery for the next novel? But it feels like a careless thread. Like pre-torn jeans. A little affected and embarrasing.
Manipulation. Well, that’s the whole theme of the story, but I didn’t like the feeling I got regarding Katniss and killing. She’s supposed to be conflicted: to have both morals, and hunting drive and sense of self-preservation. She’s supposed to be capable of killing and be torn by the knowledge that she can. But I feel like Collins almost whitewashes the scenarios in which she could really grapple with this most interesting conflict. Who does Katniss kill? One person in this book: Gloss. Gloss is deliberately never fleshed out as a character, described only as "polite but cool" when Katniss meets him and Cashmere at the hammock-making station in training. She never connects with him. She shoots an arrow at him at the Cornucopia which lands in his calf, though later she admits to herself she’d shot to kill. Later: she turns around and sees him holding a dead Wiress and a bloody knife–very graphically portrayed–and that’s when she kills him. She only ever shoots-to-kill at one other character in this book–Enobaria–but misses. At that point in the story Enobaria has been portrayed to the reader only as kind of freakishly beastial (she’s the one who chewed out an opponents throat, and now has gold-plated fangs). Later in the story she’s revealed to be a good guy, so, gee, it’s nice that Katniss missed!
I realize that the whole point of writing is–at some level–reader manipulation. But I find this aspect of Collins’ writing too easy and flat for the depth of theme she’s trying to get out of it. Katniss only ever kills people who are never fleshed out to the reader, or only depicted as flatly truly evil. Her sidekicks–the other competitors who are fleshed out–get to kill each other, so that we don’t have to deal with Katniss doing it. It’s too easy, if what Collins’ really wants to think about is "how and when is killing justified?"
Again: I enjoyed reading this book. It’s a great read, a great re-read, and will be wildly popular. It’s very good. Upon scrutiny, does it rise as one of the most distinguished books of the year according to Newbery criteria? Does it need too?
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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