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November 15, 2016 BOOKLIST
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Bring a cultural phenomenon into the classroom with the first installment of Collins’ wildly popular trilogy.
What could be better than being a writer like J. K. Rowling, Rick Riordan, or Suzanne Collins, whose books turn hundreds of thousands of people on to reading? Certainly, the proliferation and popularity of fantasy series—often big, fat novels that young readers love sinking their teeth into—is a recent and groundbreaking literary trend. Who can forget the unprecedented anticipation surrounding the publication dates for the Harry Potter series—the release parties at bookstores and libraries, the same-day delivery from Amazon, the race to be the first to read the latest volume, and the little kids lugging around the tomes to show that they too were in the loop? And since then, the excitement over the Twilight series, and more recently, the Hunger Games trilogy, with its million-copy first printing of Mockingjay (2010)? Rick Riordan’s five-volume Percy Jackson and the Olympians series was so popular, with million-copy first runs for the final installments and a movie, that it spawned two new series in 2010—the Kane Chronicles and the Heroes of Olympus.
A Trend with Deep Roots
All of the books mentioned above have been wildly popular with my seventh- and eighth-graders, who would keep lists on the board of who got the books next, with the list makers, of course, always putting their names at the top. Here’s how you know you have a book that’s a hit: sweet, polite Kendall, an eighth-grade girl, spotted one of my several copies of Collins’ Catching Fire (2009) back on my shelf and raced her friend Anna across the room, hip-checking her out of the way, to grab the book and hold it high in a Rocky-style dance of victory.
Other fantasy titles that have been popular with my students include Jonathan Stroud’s Bartimaeus series and Scott Westerfeld’s Uglies series. Westerfeld’s Leviathan (2009) and Behemoth (2010), which present an alternate history of World War I, are hugely popular with my best readers in seventh and eighth grade, as are Catherine Fisher’s Incarceron (2010) and Sapphique (2010). Terry Pratchett’s Discworld novels, Philip Reeve’s Hungry City Chronicles, Philip Pullman’s His Dark Materials trilogy, and Diana Wynne Jones’ body of work combine popularity and literary merit.
As groundbreaking as this recent trend is in the sheer number of books and readers generated, it has its roots in earlier fantasy series. J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings series, as Patty Campbell discusses in her recent essay collection, Campbell’s Scoop (2010), was a groundbreaking series that was initially a big hit with college students, and 30 years later, with high-school students and younger readers. I have always felt that if Susan Cooper’s The Dark Is Rising sequence had been reprinted in lavish editions with a larger font, more white space, and illustrations like Mary GrandPré’s for the Harry Potter series, it would attract a new, devoted readership—though it still has its fans, as does Ursula K. Le Guin’s Earthsea series.
When my children were little, I read aloud L. Frank Baum’s entire 14-volume Oz series and Lloyd Alexander’s five-book Chronicles of Prydain series, achievements I’m still proud of and that my kids remember fondly. And my wife reads aloud The Wonderful Wizard of Oz to her second-graders every year, an event that is always a big hit with children who only know the movie version.
Plot, Magic, and Peer Pressure
It’s mind-boggling to picture a million copies of a new book sitting in a warehouse awaiting the publication date. What makes fantasy series so popular? I think it’s a peculiar mix of page-turning plot, magic—the “wow, that’s cool” sort of magic that made the first Harry Potter book so much fun, with the Sorting Hat, Quidditch, the invisibility cloak, funny-flavored jelly beans, and the like—and peer pressure. Once a book catches on, you are out of the loop if you haven’t read it; it is a phenomenon you want to be part of. As Deirdre F. Baker writes in A Family of Readers (2010), readers love the “made-up” quality of fantasy, which “celebrates boldly the creative power of the artist to imagine things other than the way they are.”
This year I read The Hunger Games (2008) with my eighth-graders, knowing full well that many had read it before, but because Mockingjay had come out recently, I figured they would enjoy the chance to read it again. I knew that those who hadn’t been hooked before might become so now and go on to read the sequels. And, for sure, after we read The Hunger Games, there was always a big gap on my classroom library shelf where Catching Fire (2009) and Mockingjay had been before the big rush to borrow them.
The Hunger Games possesses the three elements mentioned above: a fast-paced plot, a sense of magic and mystery, and peer pressure. Kids want to read it because everyone else is reading it. Initially, I only lent Mockingjay to eighth-graders because I felt it was too graphically violent for younger readers, which only heightened the book’s appeal. Eventually, I lent it to seventh-graders as well because so many were getting copies elsewhere.
About the Book
The Hunger Games is the story of Panem, a future world built upon the ruins of North America, with a fabulously rich and all-powerful Capitol surrounded by 12 outlying districts. The districts are held in abject poverty and utter powerlessness by an authoritarian government, which, in its early days, obliterated a thirteenth district for rebelliousness. Inspired by the story of Theseus and the Labyrinth, Collins’ novel begins with a yearly lottery that selects two children from each district to fight in the Hunger Games, a latter-day gladiator contest in which the 24 contestants fight to the death until only one remains. The games are televised, like a brutal reality-television show, and all residents of Panem are required to watch. The event is a power play by the Capitol, which demands these annual “tributes” from each district in exchange for its continued survival.
Sixteen-year-old Katniss Everdeen from District 12, the coal-mining district, volunteers to be a tribute in place of her little sister, Prim, who is selected in the lottery. Katniss is a feisty girl of rebellious temperament. Her father died in a mining accident, and she and a boy named Gale hunt illegally outside the electrified fences surrounding the district to provide food for their families and to sell on the black market.
Katniss’ skill with her bow and arrow help her to hold her own in the Hunger Games, as she and fellow District 12 contestant Peeta Mellark, a baker’s son, become the “star-crossed lovers” of the Games, though how much is true love and how much is gamesmanship is one of the fascinations of the tale.
From the start, the Games are brutal, but Katniss survives, knowing herself quite well: “It isn’t in my nature to go down without a fight, even when things seem insurmountable.” This is the theme that connects the novel to the other books in my eighth-grade curriculum—a person taking a stand against injustice. Katniss uses her hunting and tracking skills, forms an alliance with a small girl named Rue, and receives help from drunken Haymitch, a former Games winner from District 12, and from the sponsors of the Games. She takes care of Peeta when he is badly injured, and holds her own against enemies much bigger than she. Each televised death, announced by a booming cannon and a hovercraft that carries off the dead, brings Katniss one step closer to victory.
Katniss’ ultimate success makes her a celebrity with the viewers but also an enemy of the state, a rebel the Capitol will continue to monitor. And in the second and third installments of the series, the threat of rebellion and Katniss’ love for Peeta—or is it Gale?—become twin themes. Mockingjay leaves no doubt that this is an antiwar story of the first degree, driving home to readers what war is and what it does not just to the combatants but to the innocents—families and children who get caught up in conflict. It’s a series readers will never forget and will probably reread time and again, a story as fresh as the accounts of war in the daily newspaper, a telling as dramatic as reality television and as rooted in time as Greek mythology. It’s a fitting and glorious addition to the fantasy series genre.
In the Classroom
This is not a novel to plod through; to do so is to ruin it for students. However, since I chose to teach it, I do go slowly with the early chapters and take the time to have students discuss and write about the setting, characters, and ideas. We continue to follow the novel’s big ideas as we read further, focusing particularly on Katniss’ strength of character and how she survives. When we speed up and I assign larger sections of reading, I do activities related to the novel (see below), talk about the author and how she conceived the novel, and discuss dystopian fiction, especially Lois Lowry’s The Giver (1993), the dystopian novel students are most likely to know.
Discussion (Oral and Written)
Describe life in the Seam.
Describe Katniss, including her looks, personality, and strengths.
Explain Katniss’ feelings about the reaping system and the Hunger Games.
Describe Katniss’ strength of character. What do we see of her fighting spirit in chapters 1–3? (This is the idea to keep in mind for the remainder of the novel.)
Explain Katniss’ success at the opening ceremonies and why she says on p.70, “For the first time, I feel a flicker of hope rising up in me. Surely, there must be one sponsor willing to take me on! And with a little extra help, some food, the right weapon, why should I count myself out of the Games?”
On p.65, Cinna says, “How despicable we must seem to you.” Explain what he means.
Explain how Katniss has performed during her time in the Capitol—during the opening ceremonies, training, and the interview. What do these scenes show about her character?
Part 2 (Chapters 10–18)
Give this guided-reading question to students when assigning Part 2: On p.206, Katniss says to Rue, “We’re strong, too. Just in a different way.” Explain how each is strong in this scene. Teachers might give a quick quiz on this section to see that the reading has been done and then discuss this question with the class, jotting down key points on the board. Assign students a brief write-up of the discussion for homework, and perhaps edit the papers and assign rewrites.
Part 3 (Chapters 19–27)
Describe how one of the Capitol’s rules changes and how, at the last minute, Katniss defies the Gamemakers, wins the Hunger Games, and becomes an enemy of the state.
Describe the relationship between Katniss and Peeta in Part 3.
We have followed Katniss’ strengths from the beginning of the novel. What has she done in Part 3 that gives her a chance of winning the Hunger Games?
Read aloud the story of Theseus and the Minotaur. See William F. Russell’s Classic Myths to Read Aloud (1989) for a good version of the tale. Also see the interview with Suzanne Collins at www.teenreads.com/authors/au-collins-suzanne.asp.
Read Shirley Jackson’s short story “The Lottery” either before or after The Hunger Games. If after, compare and contrast the stories.
It’s always important to read aloud key passages or scenes that illuminate the novel’s central ideas or themes, such as those on p.13–14, p.26–28, and p.119–128.
Have students write a paper on Katniss Everdeen and how she survives the Hunger Games. This is the key theme we followed from chapter 1.
For a creative-writing project, read aloud the passage beginning at the bottom of p.267 and ending at the top of p.273. On p.268, Peeta says, “Tell me about the happiest day you can remember.” Have students write about one of their happiest days, recounting the events, like Katniss does, in the form of a story.
Develop an “imaginary worlds” creative-writing project in which students imagine a world, illustrate or construct it, and write a story that takes place there. A good resource for this activity is Richard Murphy’s Imaginary Worlds: Notes on a New Curriculum (1974).
Create a whole quarter or semester’s elective on imaginary worlds, using several of the fantasy titles mentioned in this article. Tie in some of the movie versions—some good, some bad—for interesting discussions about literature and movies.
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