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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Catching Fire

…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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Nina Lindsay 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 ninalindsay@gmail.com

Comments

  1. Carol Edwards says:

    Wow Nina, you nailed it for me when you talk about the impatience I felt with the individual words and yet always wanting to keep reading to find what happened. It’s this response that really keeps the book off my personal Newbery table. For me, a Newbery has to be enjoyable along the way — with interesting characters, events and narration that hold me riveted and reward my return to them time and again. Even after I know what happens.

  2. anon says:

    Actually, the expansion of themes made me like this less than HG. HG was tighter and more focused. There were bigger themes, but it was most successful at putting you into the shoes of the girl and sharing her fear, anger, and terrible choices. This time you were watching her from the outside more.

  3. LM says:

    Nina, I thinks it’s interesting that I had the exact opposite reaction to Hunger Games and Catching Fire — enjoying the first and feeling wholly mainipulated and truly disappointed by the second.

    Last year, I was happily pulled through the story by the enterprising Katniss as her unlucky background (premature family provider, illegal hunter) morphed into her lucky experience on the deadly playing field. Hers was a tortured but believable transformation. And the “love story as theater” rang true to me as well — given the reality show prevalence we live with.

    This time round (SPOILER ALERT) in Catching Fire, since nearly everything Katniss did she was tricked into doing, her moral choices were completely muddy and the love story moved from Gladiator-like theater to more of a staged soap opera… Eh.

    I dunno. Catching Fire pissed me off. Because one naturally identifies with the heroine — and she was being duped. I felt manipulated and robbed of the experience of surviving the games through smarts and will (as Katniss had survived the first time round).

    It was like the second book was one huge, convoluted, drawn-out set-up for the REAL earnest battle coming in the third book. The handler ‘played her’ — and all Katniss’ inner dialogue (in retrospect — and you HAVE to replay everything in your head once you find out who the real good guys and bad guys are) her inner dialogue and logic was all actually for naught. It was wrongheaded. Her survival and triumph through self-reliance is illustionary. Not good for a heroine.

    Consequently, Catching Fire was a much less compelling read for me.

  4. Nina says:

    LM, I find it so interesting these “opposite” responses…turns out there are several people in each camp. I think it says a lot about what people come to a story wanting.

  5. LM says:

    Nina, Yes, I think it varies by what you come to the book looking for AND the POV you prefer to take as a reader.

    An author-friend of mine enjoyed Catching Fire immensely. When we hashed over our differing opinions it became clear that she tends to take the ‘world view’ of the story and so was facinated by the handler’s choices, the political moves of the Game’s organizers, the public’s reactions, Katniss’ role in the mileau, etc. Whereas, I’m right in there with the protangonist, world-view-be-damned, and like to experience the book on a narrower, more personal level.

    I can see how one’s prefered reading POV also leads to the very different takes.

  6. a teacher says:

    LM: “Catching Fire pissed me off. Because one naturally identifies with the heroine — and she was being duped. I felt manipulated and robbed of the experience of surviving the games through smarts and will (as Katniss had survived the first time round).”

    I think Suzanne Collins laid out enough “hints” throughout the book so that a reader shouldn’t have been too surprised to learn that Katniss had been “duped”. When she was first introduced to Plutarch . . . When Finnick and Johanna saved Peeta in the arena . . .

    I don’t think Collins purposefully intended on tricking the reader in the end, thus ruining their reading experience, I think she gave the readers clues to figure out that something big was brewing that Katniss was not privy to.

    I LOVED CATCHING FIRE. I just hope we’re not let down by how awesome the third installment COULD be . . .

  7. LM says:

    response to ‘a teacher’

    It wasn’t me as a reader being duped that I objected to — it was Katniss being robbed of her empowered role in the Games and so the story. In the first book, though strings were attached to her situation… she refused to act like ‘a good little puppet’ except when it served her own purposes. In the second book — just about everyone pulled at strings and she just danced along (being duped). That’s what felt like a disservice to the savvy protagonist I’d become attached to. (And I’m sure it was all to set up BIG THINGS in the third book… but still.)

  8. a teacher says:

    I can see what you mean, I just obviously wasn’t as bothered by it as you!

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