Catching Fire, Part Two
October 31, 2009 By 10 Comments
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?