It’s not as big as “Harry Potter” or even the “Twilight” vampire series, but a dystopian trilogy called “The Hunger Games,” set in a post-apocalyptic North America, has become a phenomenon among young readers nationwide and in the Quad-Cities.
Although the first book came out in 2008, Quad-City libraries still can’t keep copies on their shelves, and there is renewed buzz with a much-anticipated movie opening Friday, starring Jennifer Lawrence (“Winter’s Bones”) as the trilogy’s main character.
“The Hunger Games” is the first title in the series by Suzanne Collins. It refers to an annual event in a country called Panem in which one boy and one girl, ages 12-18, from each of 12 districts surrounding the Capitol are selected by lottery to compete in a televised battle that only one person can survive.
Although the setting is grim, the book features strong characters with qualities of resilience, love and respect for life, said Jan LaRoche, young adult librarian for the Moline Public Library.
She hosted a “Hunger Games” event at the library earlier this month that drew about a dozen girls, and although she had several activities planned, just talking about the book was the most popular of them. The event “started at 6:30 and was supposed to be over by 8, and I had to shoo them out the door at 8:30,” she said.
Dystopian (the idea of a society in a repressive and controlled state, often under the guise of being utopian) fiction is hot right now among young readers, she explained. Part of the “Hunger Games”’ success is likely due to “The Uglies,” an earlier dystopian trilogy by Scott Westerfeld. “Once they read one good series or book in a genre, they want more of that,” LaRoche said.
“The Hunger Games” series began coming on strong in the Quad-Cities during 2009 and 2010 through word of mouth, and it got a big boost in 2011 when it was selected for Illinois’ Rebecca Caudill reading award for students in grades 4-8, LaRoche said.
The Caudill is a “readers’ choice” award voted on by kids themselves, and “The Hunger Games” received about 10,000 votes compared with fewer than 3,000 for the second-place book, she said.
Although adult librarians were concerned about the book’s violence, especially for younger readers, “when you read it, you realize it’s speaking out against” that, LaRoche said. The main character “is trapped in a situation she felt she had no control over and did her best to keep her sense of self.”
LaRoche said she senses that the trilogy’s popularity is still on the way up.
Liza Gilbert, the programming and youth services supervisor for the Davenport Public Library, is especially impressed with the fact that even though the book’s central character — Katniss Everdeen — is a strong female, boys are reading the book, too.
“There’s good crossover,” she said. (And, of course, adults are reading the trilogy, too.)
Part of the young person appeal is that “dystopian books talk about making tough choices, how you define yourself by your choices,” Gilbert said. “In the adolescent phase, you are defining who you are.
“Whenever you have a book with that kind of tragedy and you have someone moving up, that brings so much hope. ... You can latch onto it and say maybe. It is just unparalleled for power.”
And although there is romance, “what is so unique for a young adult novel is that it didn’t resort to the girl getting saved by the guy,” LaRoche added.
Romance is a main attraction of the series for Destiny Rasmussen, an eighth-grader at Washington Junior High School in Rock Island who attended a “Hunger Games” event earlier this week at the Rock Island Public Library.
“Out of the three of us,” she said, referring to her friends Kathryn Calhoun and Iesha Eggleston, who were standing next to her, “I am all about romance.”
Still, she added, the books “have a little bit of everything: dramatic, sad, happy.”
Joshua Teggatz, a seventh-grader who attended the same event, said he liked “all the action” in the books, but admitted he “almost cried” during the third book.
Grace Patratz, a sixth-grader at Denkmann Elementary School in Rock Island, said she just “pushed through” the sad parts.