This is a first on TeachYALit.com. Rather than a typical review of a book or series, I invited a teacher friend of mine to engage in an email exchange to post on the site. As this also was our forum for catching up on a more personal level, the emails have been edited for relevance. Laurie's emails are in green text, while mine are in blue.
I'd love to have the e-mail exchange on the teachyalit website.
FYI--I read the trilogy first two back to back and then waited for the third one. and read it early last fall. I also listened to two of them in audio format before reading them, so the voice on the cd also influenced how I viewed the characters.
I was intrigued by the premise and setting of the first book and fascinated by the secondary characters more so than the main character, Katniss. I was never able to see her in the way that Peeta and Gale saw her. I am not sure if that is because of the point of view, and Katniss has such low self-esteem that her character was suppressed or if I needed a little more back story and exposition to be able to see her more clearly. One of my issues with all of the books was not being able to identify with her as much as I probably should have given she is the main character and the story unfolds through her eyes.
I completely agree about Katniss. I didn't really think she was believable as a beacon of hope (or as the type of girl for whom boys would be willing to die). It was interesting, though, that Peeta and Gale really seemed to be the only two who really loved Katniss. She seemed to grate on everyone else's nerves, perhaps with the exception of Cinna--but that was a different sort of relationship altogether. There's no doubt that Katniss was tough, but she relied heavily on help from others to survive. That, in and of itself, could be a good lesson for adolescent readers, but I can't help that feel that for a heroine, Katniss was much more pawn than queen.
The weirdest part of all for me was that, even though I didn't really connect with Katniss or buy her as the savior of Panem, I was pretty enthralled by the books. I found them hard to put down, but I can't quite figure out why. Your thoughts on that?
I also got absorbed in the fast placed plot and the dystopian world of the stories, even though I did not like Katniss at all. She did so many of the things that make me crazy for female characters to do, such as lead men on, play the game, pretend to be something she was not, feign affection/love, pout to get her way. I did keep wondering throughout the book if the author was trying to talk about how real all of those characteristics still are, especially in adolescent girls who are "learning" the role of woman, or if she just couldn't write a story with a stronger female character in light of the success of books like the Twilight series (another weak female role model). With listening to the audio version, I can't get the sound out of my head of the reader calling out "Peeta." It had such a pathetic quality to it as opposed to grief. And that definitely colored my perception of Katniss even more. When I listen to audio books, I often do the theatre school/ acting training thing and think how would I do it differently, and as I pondered that, I really did begin to wonder what the reader was intended to make of Katniss. Did the reader of the audio file "read" her right? And if so, the intent was for Katniss to be a fairly pathetic girl thrust into the spotlight and trying to make the best of it, what does that say about the two other female characters, the mother, who does seem to have much more on the ball as a healer, but also lacks in character at important times, and the sister, who to me is the real feminine hero, combining the best of the mother and of Katniss. And more importantly, what does it say about the two male characters both of whom want to take care of Katniss, and both of whom do not trust her to make decisions for herself or for the greater good if given all of the facts. One of my favorite scenes is when Katniss and the young girl in the trees become allies and how Katniss reacts to her death. This is a moment where Katniss shines as a good role model, but she does not maintain that quality. And I never got a good answer as to why no one trusts Katniss to see the larger picture, especially after this scene. Why Peeta is so in love with Katniss and has been since he took a beating to give her bread is also never fully fleshed out-- the only reason we are given is that she is beautiful, another superficial quality. She is a complex character, but not necessarily in the good way. I totally agree that she is much more pawn than queen, and I wonder if that was the author's intent and if she is has something larger to say or was trying to say something larger. I would like to be convinced of that, but I just don't have enough evidence. If I were editing this story or commenting on it, I would have to say that all of the main characters were uneven.
Fantasy and science-fiction are always commentary on our own world, and for as much as I was drawn into this book, I also felt completely gipped by the end, and cheapened somehow.
I was fascinated by the setting though and thought that was where the power of the story lay. Having a society that so dishonors children as to watch them fight to the death as entertainment was a powerful commentary on greed. It seems to have some roots in sweatshops and outsourced Western work to third world countries where child labor, daily poverty and starvation, and polluting of the environment are daily occurrences. I do wonder what we as Americans would do, if our reality television relied on workers in those factories.
I do want to explore the relationship with Cinna and the other adults, and also with family members.
One thing, is that most of the students whom I talk with about this book also feel very let down at the end of the series.
I am loving these conversations. We need to choose another YA book or series and read it so we can discuss it.
You make a great point about the unevenness of the main characters. (And I think "uneven" is the perfect word, as I wouldn't settle on calling them particularly static or rounded. 10 points to you for word choice.) I also was frustrated with Katniss's approach to "managing" the men in her life. I was also truly surprised at times by how much her emotions seemed to be driven by sexual contact. For all the desire of Peeta and Gale to take care of her, and for all the non-sexual ways that they showed their affection for her, her emotions seemed to hinge more on whom and how frequently she was kissing than on anything else.
I agree also that the recklessness with which Panem treated the lives of children was fascinating and powerful, although I admit that I did not make the connection to sweatshops, etc. I thought of it at a little more zoomed-out level, wondering if Collins was making a broad statement about ways in which our society may not be great at protecting its children. And I think the relationship of the adults are a perfect example of that. For me, there wasn't a single grown-up character in the series who really stood out as a proper adult. Katniss's mother was a great nurse, but she wasn't much of a parent; Haymitch was a good coach for the Games, but he was an unreliable alcoholic and was willing to risk his proteges in the interest of bringing down Panem. I thought Cinna came the closest to being a proper adult--in some ways, he reminded me of a good teacher: he developed a strong relationship with Katniss, he listened to her problems, he struck a good balance between giving her solutions and planting them inside her to discover on her own--but even he was a bit too passive and not wholly honest. Maybe he can't be blamed too much, though, being that he was pretty entrenched in the Capital way of life. What did you think about Cinna and the other adults?
Also, I'm curious to hear more about what the students have said to you about the books and their ending.
Talk to you soon,
And that's all there is on that for now. Please feel free to add thoughts and comments on The Hunger Games, questions for either Laurie or myself to expand on claims we made, or, indeed, suggestions for another book or series for this kind of exchange. And, of course, if we continue to email about the series, further notes will be posted here.
Note: This won't likely be the end of reviews on this site, but I hope to do more of this kind of thing--it was fun. If you would like to submit an (edited) email exchange on a book or series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org to discuss the particulars. (This is all voluntary, so there's no money in it, but you'll surely get credit as a contributor to the site and we'll happily link to your own personal blog or website.)