“Stay alive.”

Books on Tap met Thursday, September 1, at Champion Brewing Company to discuss The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, a young adult novel from 2008. This book was chosen as a part of our Banned Books Week celebration. We’ll continue the fun with a free film screening of the Hunger Games movie at Central Library on Wednesday, September 28, 6 pm. For more information, click here

For almost everyone, this was their first time reading the book. Personally, I (Abby speaking) read this book as a teenager. It was a very different reading experience as an adult (and as a mom). If you weren’t a teenager back in the 2000s and missed the memo, here’s a basic rundown of the plot: America has warped into a dystopian society called Panem. Each year, a ceremony called the reaping determines which children – two from each district – will compete in the annual Hunger Games. This event is a twisted televised game, in which kids fight to the death. The last one standing is the victor. 

While it sounds gruesome, our first time readers were surprised at the lack of violence. Of course there are killings, but “violence” connotes strength of emotion, and what we read here generally lacks malice and intimacy. Readers will not be stomaching gory, bloody, maniacal demon children hunting each other like prey. We follow Katniss Everdeen’s point of view, and her modus operandi is not so much to kill as it is to simply stay alive. 

We had two primary threads of discussion: Katniss as a character and the novel’s world-building. Katniss was interesting. One reader described her as an outlaw. We also noted that she had different layers. In some regards, she was unnaturally mature. She provided for her family, volunteered as tribute to save her sister, and then, once in the games, managed to play with the Capitol, almost in a cat-and-mouse fashion. She understood that her destiny as tribute meant not just fighting and perhaps death – it also included the inhumane transformation into a product for national consumption. But she was able to take control over her performance within the games, so even when she could not control the arena, she found a way to be received by viewers at home as a human being. That warm reception turned the games upside down. 

As strong, brave, and cunning as Katniss was, though, we did not sense that she was really ready (or all that interested) in romance. While a love triangle might keep teens on the edge of their seats, adult readers won’t find it running all that deep. We did joke that while Katniss was in the center of this particular love triangle, if she was seen through the eyes of a 16-year-old boy in real life, Katniss would have been a very intimidating, and probably downright terrifying, young woman. 

Krista, our fearless leader, dressed as Katniss for Halloween

The world-building is where Collins takes this book into a realm that adults can enjoy. While many readers were surprised by the book not being as “shocking” as the tagline “kids killing other kids” might suggest, other readers were kept up at night, haunted by the premise of a government with total social control. In that world, when people are used as commodity, the shock comes in realizing that even surviving the hunger games will not make you free. We were also particularly troubled by the concept of entertainment in the novel, but we discussed how we are entertained by reality shows such as “Survivor,” “Alone,” and “Naked and Afraid.” More seriously, in our age of social media blurring the lines between news and entertainment, we often witness real violence in real time on our devices, as we go about our day. The sponsorship program within the games, which allows for charismatic contestants to be given advantages by wealthy citizens, was compared to forces within our own democratic elections, when we considered the pageantry involved in campaign seasons. 

And while the shock factor comes from the seemingly perfect governmental control, the intrigue lies in questioning its strength, which our readers did with great vigor. How strong was the Capitol, really? Some argued the Capitol was actually incredibly fragile. Consider the lengths it went to, annually, to maintain control. Consider the apparent panic when even an ounce of that control is taken away. A truly strong government does not need total control, whereas a weak government flails without total control. The end of The Hunger Games, the first book in a trilogy, sets this thought-experiment flying. 

On October 6, the group will be meeting to discuss Kindred. Did you know there is a graphic novel adaptation? Stay tuned for announcements about what we’ll be reading in November and beyond! We hope you’ve enjoyed this discussion recap, and Krista dressed as Katniss! 

Other books mentioned: 

The Stand by Stephen King 

The Lottery by Shirley Jackson 

Fahrenheit 451 by Ray Bradbury 

Rocket Boys by Homer Hickam (a poor mining town probably not unlike Katniss’ home district)

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