Follow This Blog: RSS feed
Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Unfinished Business: The Hunger Games

To my mind, this book had the most distinguished plot of last year.  The events were organized in such a fashion that they generated an enormous amount of suspense, and what was even more impressive is that Collins accomplished it with a single viewpoint character and a simple uncluttered narrative arc.  I thought THE GRAVEYARD BOOK, THE LINCOLNS, and THE UNDERNEATH also had distinguished plots.  Clearly, none of these books were as plot-driven as THE HUNGER GAMES, but I think you could make a case for them as most distinguished in terms of plot.  A book doesn’t necessarily need to be plot-driven in order to have a distinguished plot because technically plot refers to the arrangement of the events in the story. 
The characterization of Katniss was very well done, particularly during the Games.  She was resourceful in stressful situations and she was able to think quickly and logically in order to solve unexpected problems.  Plotting and characterization were woven together seamlessly.  There is also a good degree of character development.  The Hunger Games brought out both the best and worst in human nature–and the experience clearly changes Katniss.  Perhaps the book does not rise to the standard of some of the character-driven novels of last year, but compared to some other highly praised genre fiction books, I think it is very strong indeed.  
While there is some undeniably strong world-building here, some people felt that the world wasn’t sufficiently developed.  I heard complaints about how the cameras worked, how the parachutes worked, how the arena was too big, and so forth, but, to my mind, these were niggling problems.  And, of course, with CATCHING FIRE they will be non-issues because if we can draw inferences for WHEN YOU REACH ME then we can certainly do it for CATCHING FIRE.  What’s good for the goose is good for the gander.  Still, I’d let you argue that THE GRAVEYARD BOOK and THE UNDERNEATH had more distinguished settings than THE HUNGER GAMES, but I don’t think anything else did–or even came close.  THE PORCUPINE YEAR?  I’m willing to listen to arguments.
The sentence level writing is certainly undistinguished (not bad necessarily, just not great).  Some people found the copyediting exacerbated the problem (although it’s much better in CATCHING FIRE).  Then, too, the book is bloated with excess writing.  It is a problem that affects too many young adult novels nowadays.  The last several books I have reviewed for Horn Book have all suffered from excess writing.  I think if these writers would write the same stories in fewer words they wouldn’t have such listless, disinterested readers. 
While I do agree that CATCHING FIRE is a richer book thematically, the seeds of those themes are planted in THE HUNGER GAMES and the book’s exploration of political oppression, the manipulation of reality television, and the morbid fascination with violence in popular culture easily places it among the stronger thematic works of last year.
THE HUNGER GAMES was the most distinguished book in terms of plot.  It was also distinguished in terms of character, setting, and theme–it certainly ranked in the top five in each of these categories for me.  I do agree, however, that the book was merely average in terms of style, not even a top ten book.
I remain frustrated by vague criticisms about the "undistinguished writing" of THE HUNGER GAMES.  If you are lumping character, setting, and style into one category–writing–then what exactly makes it undistinguished?  I’m still looking for answers to this question: Why is plot the red-headed stepchild of the Newbery criteria?
I’ll turn my attention–finally–to a similar analysis of CATCHING FIRE next time, but I’ll warn you that I do so somewhat half-heartedly.  While I thought THE HUNGER GAMES was a strong contender in last year’s Newbery field, I do not think that CATCHING FIRE is as strong in this year’s field.  Certainly, the sequel issue complicates that, but so too does the strength in the nonfiction.
Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the Coordinator of Library Media Services at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Caldecott Medal, the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at


  1. I’m curious about your comments on the strong characterization, because I think the thing people talked about most after the mediocre style was the weak characterization. Can you give specific examples? One of the things that really stood out to me about THG (when I thought about it critically, rather than just OMG-that-was-so-good) was that there was, basically, no change at all in Katniss. I found her pretty flat.

    I didn’t have the problems some others did with the setting and world-building; in fact, many of those complaints (which seemed to come more from the hard-core science fiction crowd, who demand different things from their world-building from the rest of us) seemed unfounded to me. I didn’t care where all the cameras were because it wasn’t important to the story, and anyway it wasn’t hard to believe that a world with that kind of technology would have crazy possibilities for hidden cameras and microphones. (I thought The Porcupine Year had good setting, but The Underneath and Chains both excelled there.)

    You don’t seem sold on The Porcupine Year’s plot, and I’ll agree that it isn’t really plot-driven, but I was impressed with the plotting; I see it as similar to The Graveyard Book, with an overarching plot tying together the episodes.

    I don’t buy the “if we can do it for WYRM then we have to for {}” argument you’ve been putting forth. Yes, we draw inferences for WYRM, but perhaps the book encourages that, enables it, in a way a lesser book might not.

    As I’ve said before, I don’t really think Catching Fire does its theme better than Hunger Games. It’s just balder and, to my mind, more simplistic.

    Do you really think plot is ignored more often than setting? I’m not sure about that. But if it is, perhaps the others are just harder to find. And I think there are any number of books that aren’t chosen primarily on the basis of plotting–say, My One Hundred Adventures. It didn’t have strong plotting (and not in the sense of a book like Criss Cross, where the plot is done well enough but not an important part of the book, but in the sense that the pacing was off), and none of the other elements made up for that enough. If the plot had been organized more forcefully, maybe it would have made it higher. I might say the same for Calpurnia (which I think is better than My One Hundred Adventures). If the plotting was done differently, if every episode in the book was part of the plot arc and carried the story along, I bet it wouldn’t matter so much that the plot isn’t as exciting as that of, say, WYRM. And speaking of plot, Jonathan, I hope you’ll address A Season of Gifts and its lack of plot/effective plotting–at least, I found it lacking.

  2. Interesting points about an interesting book, but aren’t there any more 2009 books to discuss instead of rehashing 2008?

  3. Laurie (Six Boxes of Books) says:

    “anon”: I find using The Hunger Games as a way of discussing what we mean when we talk about character, setting, style, and theme very useful for establishing these terms to discuss the books of 2008. I appreciate Jonathan taking the time to dissect this topic.

    I have been thinking a lot about what I meant by “writing” in reference to The Hunger Games. I think I was really thinking about what the Newbery criteria calls “style,” which I connect to “voice” (a term used a great deal when talking with my middle school students about their writing and reading).

    Another “Anon.” in the previous post wrote, “STYLE is the author’s attempt to tell the story in written words. STYLE includes everything in the writing. STYLE includes the order or reorder of PLOT, CHARACTER, and SETTING information and events, the point of view, spare vs. verbose, dialog vs. narrative…everything down to the specific word selection from the first word to the last. ” This is close to what I was thinking about “writing.”

    As I was re-reading the beginning of The Hunger Games on the way home this afternoon (a student helpfully returned a copy, which has a hold list a mile long, just after all the other kids had left for the weekend), and thinking about how I could discuss its style, I suddenly remembered the comments from Lois Lowry and M.T. Anderson during the Battle of the Books ( and realized that the odds are not in my favor today.

    I look forward to discussing the plot, setting, characters, and style of the 2009 books and will refrain from “vague criticisms.”

  4. Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. The changes in Katniss are probably more subtle because they are internal. I think she is more skeptical, less trusting, has a broader view of the world, more confident in her abilities, confused about the nature of her relationship with Peeta. Not that a Newbery committee could look at this–and it’s one the the things that makes it difficult for sequels–but if you look at the beginning of CATCHING FIRE I think you see a very different Katniss than the one that started THE HUNGER GAMES. On the other hand, do you find dramatic changes in Omakayas? I didn’t, and while her book did not have events that were as dramatic it did have more time to effect changes.

    2. I guess my point is that if you think WHEN YOU REACH ME enables the reader to make inferences better than CATCHING FIRE does, then it would behoove you to explain why that is the case because otherwise it smacks of favoritism rather than having any basis in objective criteria that we can apply to both books.

    3. My intent is not to squelch discussion here, but rather to encourage it. We all have different ideas of what constitutes good writing so communicating more precisely helps us so that we (a) address the Newbery criteria and (b) do not talk past each other.

    4. I had planned to do a separate post for CATCHING FIRE, but truth be told, I’m a bit weary of this particular discussion, and it does not seem like it has sparked much conversation so I will add my thoughts briefly here. I think that CATCHING FIRE is similarly strong in all of the literary elements (plot, character, setting, theme) with the exception of the stylistic quality of the prose. It’s interesting to note that some people feel THE HUNGER GAMES to be the better book, while others prefer CATCHING FIRE. Several issues complicate Newbery consideration of this book, and I think its status as a sequel is the one that most hampers its chances. Everything considered, I still felt like CATCHING FIRE was the best fantasy/science fiction title. Now that I’ve read LIPS TOUCH: THREE TIMES, however, CATCHING FIRE slides down to the number two position, making it even less likely that I could find a spot for it on my own personal Newbery ballot.

    4. But I do think it deserves to be in the conversation and I remain perplexed by the double standard that exists out there in Newbery buzzland. So go ahead and be snarky about its Newbery chances. But realize that just as CATCHING FIRE is deficient in the stylistic quality of its prose, so too is THE EVOLUTION OF CALPURNIA TATE deficient in its plot. Both books are merely average in these respects, yet one is consistently touted as a legitimate Newbery contender and one is scoffed at. And it’s not right, people!

Speak Your Mind