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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Catching Fire, Part Two

I had THE HUNGER GAMES third on my own personal Newbery ballot last year (behind THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and THE LINCOLNS), but I never thought it had a chance in the Printz field which was crowded with great fantasy (NATION, TENDER MORSELS, THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, GRACELING, THE KNIFE OF NEVER LETTING GO, EON, and PRETTY MONSTERS).  Now I don’t think CATCHING FIRE is quite as good as THE HUNGER GAMES, and I don’t necessarily expect it to win Newbery or Printz recognition, but I am surprised that the award buzz has completely passed this book over in favor of lesser titles.
 
I do think CATCHING FIRE suffers from middle book syndrome, not to mention sequel prejudice.  I also don’t find the prose style distinguished as it could be.  It’s not necessarily bad, mind you, but it’s not as good as the other books we’ve mentioned on this blog.  That said, I do find the other literary elements–plot, character, setting, and theme–strong enough to merit serious consideration.  So what gives?  What are your reservations about CATCHING FIRE as a Newbery contender?  
 
These are words that I had written down about CATCHING FIRE before Nina beat me to the punch with her latest post.  I’d like to tackle the literary elements–plot, character, setting, theme, style–in another post, but here are my thoughts on some of the affiliated issues she brings up.
 
THE AGE ISSUE
 
Some people will find CATCHING FIRE a more comfortable fit for the Printz rather than the Newbery because of the romance and violence, but I think they will probably be in the minority.  Nina suggested that the romance is handled nicely for this audience and I agree.  Similarly, I think the violence, though graphic, has a muted quality because of Katniss’s lack of culpability.  I didn’t see that as a weakness, but rather a nod to child presentation.  I have fifth and sixth graders avidly reading both THE HUNGER GAMES and CATCHING FIRE.  Do we really want to suggest that CATCHING FIRE is inappropriate for eighth and ninth graders?  Moreover, I think fourteen-year-olds will read and enjoy STITCHES by David Small, WINTERGIRLS by Laurie Halse Anderson, FIRE by Kristin Cashore, and MARCELO IN THE REAL WORLD by Francisco Stork.  Next to those CATCHING FIRE seems very juvenile indeed. 
 
THE SEQUEL ISSUE
 
I find that Collins has sufficiently worked in enough backstory to make this a satisfactory read, even without the benefit of having read THE HUNGER GAMES.  I also find that there is enough closure for me at the end of the story, despite an abrupt cliffhanger ending with some loose plot threads.  I’m sure our comfort level with the ambiguity at both ends of the story will differ just as greatly as it did on the text-and-pictures discussion on the recent picture book threads.  The chief reading skill that will determine your comfort level is your ability to draw inferences.  If you’re willing to do that, then you will probably derive greater pleasure from this particular volume in isolation.  Now normally this would be a very hard sell, an uphill battle for me, but this year it’s made easier by my new best friend: Rebecca Stead.  See, if you can read–dome, burn scale, A WRINKLE IN TIME, diamonds on a ring–and infer an elaborate theory of time travel, then you really ought to have no trouble at all with this book.     
 
THE FORGETABILITY ISSUE 
   
I sympathize with Nina’s restlessness in the reading of this book, and I do think we can chalk some of this up to the stylistic quality of the prose (which I’ll discuss at greater length in the next post), but I think this whole discussion speaks to an unspoken standard, namely that when we read, one of the marks of a good book for many of us is one that stays with us over a long period of time.  That is especially true when we are reading hand over fist, gobbling books whole, as it were.  This doesn’t really speak to any of the criteria, though, does it?  I remember discussing this very issue at one of Nina’s previous mock Newbery discussions.  We had a very quiet book on the table, not an action-packed science fiction.  None of us could remember very much about it.  It didn’t stay with us very well.  It may have been a great read in the moment, and there was certainly a lingering impression of beautiful writing, but . . . it went on to win a Newbery Honor: OLIVE’S OCEAN by Kevin Henkes.
 
THE FAVORITISM ISSUE
 
This is not a perfect book by any stretch of the imagination, but my twelve-year-old self is screaming for this to win the Newbery, and truth be told, my adult self found it the most enjoyable read of the year, too (after THE LOST CONSPIRACY, of course).  From an objective standpoint, I can see that WHEN YOU REACH ME and A SEASON OF GIFTS are better written novels; they hold up better under closer examination with the Newbery criteria.  Since the Newbery charge is to select the most distinguished book rather than my favorite book, I’d like to think that I’d vote for Stead and Peck over Collins (if it came down to that), but . . . I don’t know.  I mean, somebody has to represent for the fantasy readers, right?    
   
 
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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. Sondy says:

    Ah, but if you’re going to speak up for fantasy readers, please consider SILKSINGER, by Laini Taylor. Also a sequel, but what masterful plotting! Different threads woven together beautifully like … a Silksinger would do. Wonderfully imaginative setting as well.

    Another good Fantasy selection is FOREST BORN, by Shannon Hale, but I have no perspective on Shannon Hale books — I love them immediately and unreservedly and have a hard time judging if other people will find them strong. Also part of a series which I have read, so I’m not sure how well it stands alone.

    Besides, technically CATCHING FIRE is not fantasy at all, but science fiction.

    That said, I think I was more impressed by CATCHING FIRE than with THE HUNGER GAMES. It did seem to explore the issues involved more deeply. I will just chime in that I agree with what both you and Nina have to say about it.

  2. Wendy says:

    I just thought it wasn’t a very good book. I, too, was bored by it. I wanted to like it a lot; at first I didn’t, then after a hundred or so pages I thought “okay, it’s getting good now”, but that stopped abruptly and I felt it got worse and worse. I found the amount of recapping from last time painful, but I don’t think that really plays into the Newbery discussion. Most of it could have been condensed considerably; I found character development lacking for all characters except maybe Gale’s, and he might have stood out because he’s got more than he did in THG; I thought the writing was just clunky and awkward for the most part. The scene when Katniss and Peeta go to visit Rue’s area is heartbreaking and well-played and was the highlight of the book for me. When Cinna steps onpage, the book always flares into life. But otherwise, where is the excellence in style?

    Many people have been pleased that CF goes more into the rebellion aspects than THG games did; personally, I thought that was one of the main ways that CF was “clunky”–it states what the reader got to infer in THG.

    But really, I think what I thought was worst about the book was near the ending, when in a few paragraphs an entire plot line was explained in a “here’s what happened” kind of way. Creative writing professors should be making copies of that and passing it out as an example of “telling instead of showing”.

    I would have been okay with a Newbery Honor for The Hunger Games (certainly I thought it was better than Savvy), but I think there are many better choices this year than Catching Fire. Even if it’s your thing. (It’s obviously not mine.)

  3. Jody Metz says:

    Wendy; Savvy was on your Newbery Honor prediction list last year.

  4. Laurie (Six Boxes of Books) says:

    Jonathan, I am very surprised that The Hunger Games was third on your personal Newbery list last year. I enjoyed it very much, as did a number of my middle school students, but not because the writing was particularly distinguished. The plot is memorable and compelling, sure. I agree that “somebody has to represent for the fantasy [and science fiction] readers” but there is truly distinguished writing in these genres, better than HG/CF. (The titles eligible for this year’s Newbery are not immediately springing to mind. I don’t think Forest Born stands alone that well. Fire by Kristin Cashore is a Printz contender.)

  5. Wendy (Six Boxes of Books) says:

    (Um, yes, Jody, but not because I thought it was great. It’s marked “what I think will win”, not “what I want to win”.)

  6. Jonathan Hunt says:

    Sondy, I just finished the first story in LIPS TOUCH and I enjoyed it very much. If it holds up, I’ll gladly read SILKSINGER. I use the terms fantasy and science fiction interchangeably–because I think, for the most part, the audience for these genres is interchangeable. If you enter the chain bookstores, the fantasy is shelved under science fiction . . .

    Laurie, I can’t put CATCHING FIRE on my own personal Newbery ballot this year, but I’m not sure that I can put any novel in my top three this year–fantasy or otherwise. As for THE HUNGER GAMES, I need more space than the comments allow. Look for my answer in my next post.

  7. Sondy says:

    SILKSINGER really should be read after BLACKBRINGER, because she establishes the world in BLACKBRINGER. However, if you read SILKSINGER on its own, you’ll know much better than me if it stands alone. I read them pretty close together, so I can’t be sure. That’s my one caveat — It’s a sequel.

  8. Eric says:

    Overall the Hunger Games and Catching Fire are just really good books

    nice review

    themockingjay.vndv.com

  9. Briar says:

    I finally read them both after studiously avoiding this post on the blog for what felt like forever!

    I couldn’t stop reading Hunger Games and wish it had won an Honor last year. I definitely found it to be much “tighter” and not as clunky. I was lost in the world more completely. That said, I proceeded to spend six hours in B&N on Saturday so I could read the whole sequel. So there is certainly something about the series as a whole.

    I don’t have these books in our library because I serve Gr 1-4. But I mentioned reading it to one of my 4th Grade Big Readers and she excitedly said there are already kids in the grade reading it (though only 2 or 3, I think). So maybe I was misguided not to include CF in our Mock Newbery this year. Not sure.

    Is there an award out there for “Series As A Whole”?

  10. Jonathan Hunt says:

    The Mythopoeic Award, which is given for fantasy literature, allows for an entry in a series to win or the series as a whole to win. J.K. Rowling won for the Harry Potter series, Jonathan Stroud won for the Bartimaues series. But most of the time it goes to either a standalone titles or a separate entry in a series.

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