As a teen librarian, I often read books in which I’m not particularly interested. I do this to be sure I have well rounded knowledge so I can recommend books for any child, regardless if they are my cup of tea or not. I also read the popular stuff because, inevitably, I will have students who will be sure to come running up to me ready to geek out over their latest obsession. That’s what inspired me to read the new Hunger Games novel by Suzanne Collins, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes.
However, what drove me to read it now was a seemingly innocent text from my sister that read, “Did you know there is a new Hunger Games book?!?!” To which I responded, “Yes. Not sure how I feel about it though. It’s a prequel where the evil President Snow is the main character.” And even though it was only a week after the publication date of May 19, 2020, she immediately responded with, “You haven’t read it?!?” Even my own sister figured I had read it already.
To say that I was reluctant to read it would be an understatement. Based on my conversation with my sister, it should come as no surprise to you that when I heard that this prequel would focus on President Snow’s early years, I was, well, not a happy camper. Snow is a completely disgusting and disagreeable character. Why on Earth would I want to read a book that makes him the protagonist? How could I and why would I want to possibly identify with someone so evil, someone who goes out of his way to torture and kill his enemies? I didn’t want to like him. And if I don’t want to like him, why should I bother reading this book? Reading this lukewarm review from NPR sort of sealed my reluctance. I mean, I was still planning to – it’s kind of part of my job – but I wasn’t in any rush. But, after the push from my sister and Mr. Librarian’s convenient loan from our local public library, I jumped in a lot sooner than I had expected.
Let me start by saying that I LOVED the Hunger Games. They were one of the first real Young Adult books I read when training to be a teen librarian. Actually, I think that they are the first real Young Adult books I read ever – not truly being something commonplace when I was a teen (I mean, I went from Babysitters Club and Sweet Valley High to adult classics and The Mists of Avalon when I was a kid.) I loved Katniss Everdeen and her struggle to survive the Games, defeat the Capitol, and navigate a morally gray area. I loved Peeta Mellark and his eternal optimism and devotion. I loved that a group of teens sparked a revolution that transformed their world.
Side note (and spoiler for the end of Catching Fire): After previewing this post, Mr. Librarian insisted that I include my reaction to the end of Catching Fire, which I read the moment it was released. On reading the last sentence and realizing that I would have to wait a whole year for the conclusion, I yelled at the top of my lungs, “WHAT DO YOU MEAN THERE’S NO DISTRICT 12?!?!”
If you haven’t read The Hunger Games, Catching Fire, and Mockingjay – I strongly suggest that go do that now! Seriously. They’re still great and I should know since I just finished rereading them.
As to the new one – A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes – I didn’t hate it. I bet you’re thinking, “Cheryl! This is supposed to be a blog about the books you LOVE, not books that you think of as only-OK.” Well, I am the President Snow of this blog and made the executive (dictatorial) decision that I am going to amend my mission statement and start including books that I may only like but about which have strong opinions. And I didn’t hate this book. I actually kind of liked it.
I think it is safe to say that I still don’t like Snow. But even insane, psychopathic dictators come from somewhere and I found it interesting to read his origin story. While he didn’t start out as a psychopathic murderer, he certainly demonstrated a malleability of mind to become one. I wanted to know how Snow would justify his own behavior and actions. I also wanted to hear Snow’s perceptions and to see how/if they change to make him who we see during Katniss’ journey.
The book begins as a young Coriolanus Snow is assigned to mentor the District 12 tribute, Lucy Gray, through the 10th Hunger Games. At this time, the Hunger Games looks a lot different than what exists in Katniss’ time. It is hard to imagine that the Hunger Games could be WORSE, but, well, it is. The tributes aren’t fed. They are housed at the zoo. They aren’t provided clothes or training. As a series of assignments for school, Snow writes essays on how to make the Hunger Games more popular – because at this point – no one watches. Everyone is still reeling from the end of the war. Even the people in the Capitol are poor and don’t want reminders of the horrible times that they are trying to put behind them.
Until Dr. Gaul. The Head Gamemaker wants to make the Hunger Games a spectacle. And she has some interesting ideas on control, chaos, and contracts (as in social contracts). She is also a genetic biologist working on the muttations, some of which show up in The Hunger Games and some of which are immediately implemented (very gruesomely, I might add).
The first two-thirds of the book were interesting enough and well paced. That is if you’re willing to put up with Snow’s internal tirades defending his elitist privilege as he descends further and further into the abyss. His inner monologue is rife with justifications of his self-centered and narcissistic behavior.
Sadly though, the last third of the book drags. It really drags. I was so bored. Up until the last two or three chapters – where let’s just say… it. gets. dark. Seriously. I didn’t think it could get worse. Then it did. Morality, ethics, and even humanity fly out the window. This is where we see the real Coriolanus Snow stand up.
As with the original Hunger Games being a commentary on war and reality television, the prequel explores the ideas of privilege and oppression. Starting with the fact that only a small minority of Capitol citizens even want the Hunger Games and the oppression of the Districts. Dr. Gaul uses her influence to ensure that the Capitol and the Districts are forever trapped in an “Us vs. Them” mentality that seems eerily familiar to today’s real-life political situation. The book also feels timely since it delves into the classist privilege that Snow demonstrates, as he believes that – as a member of an elite family in the Capitol – he is entitled to everything he wants even when he can’t afford it. Echoes of the Me Too movement are also alluded to in Snow’s relationship with Lucy Gray. The relationship for Snow starts with a pitying adoration and a kinship of personality, but eventually morphs into an unhealthy relationship that veers into emotional abuse that is more a reflection on his ego and less about actual feelings. His possessive attitude through the end of the book was really difficult for me to read.
In the last few weeks I haven’t been blogging much as I’ve been suffering from some writer’s block. That’s not to say that I haven’t read any books that I want to write about but I just haven’t been able to put pen to paper (probably an outdated metaphor – more appropriate, put my fingers to the keyboard.) This book got me out of my funk. Well played, Suzanne Collins. This was definitely not what I was expecting.
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, published 2020
The Hunger Games, published 2008
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