I'm a little late to the party when it comes to The Hunger Games. The first book came out years ago, but I only got around to reading them this year, when I mentioned them to my mother and she was shocked that I hadn't read them.
The Hunger Games trilogy is set in the fictional country of Panem, which is located in the remains of what was once North America. After a huge war, which effectively destroyed the continent, the survivors emerged and created a hierarchical society, the capital of which is, appropriately, called the Capitol. This city is surrounded by twelve districts, each of which is responsible for the production of a different good, and these are all strictly monitored by the Capitol's army. As punishment for the rebellion which incited the war, each year the districts must all send two citizens, one female and one male, under the age of eighteen, to compete in a brutal tournament called the Hunger Games. The goal? Be the last living contestant.
Katniss Everdeen lives in District 12, which is responsible for producing coal. She is the sole provider for her family, as her father was killed in a mining accident. She spends her days hunting in the woods with her best friend, Gale, illegally killing animals to provide food to her mother and sister. When her sister is chosen at random as the District's female tribute, she volunteers to go in her place. And so she and Peeta, the son of a baker and the other tribute, are sent to the Capitol to compete, along with their mentor, the alcoholic Haymitch, who won the Games years ago.
The first book follows Katniss and Peeta's experiences in the Games, half of the book following their preparation for the event and the second portraying the Games themselves. The second book, Catching Fire, picks up where the first leaves off, right after the end of the Games, and is centered around the Quarter Quell, a celebration of the anniversary of the Games and which sends Katniss back to the Capitol to participate in a second round of Games. This book introduces hints of impending rebellion , which leads into the third book, Mockingjay. In the third and final book of the trilogy, Katniss heads the revolution against the Capitol, as Panem breaks out into a full-blown civil war.
I'm being deliberately vague with the plot details, since a huge part of the fun of these books is the anticipation of figuring out what will happen next. Collins has created an incredible world, filled with violence and inequality, that is eerily reminiscent of today's society, and presents a bleak view of the possible future of our world. Collins is a great writer, and creates a tension-filled narrative with unforgettable, realistic characters. It's impossible not to fall in love with Katniss, who is exactly what female YA heroines should be: fierce, tough, and smart.
The one criticism I have of this series is that the quality definitely decreases after the first book. While books 2 and 3 are both wonderful in their own right, it's impossible for them to live up to the perfectly paced, tightly plotted narrative of the original Hunger Games. The third one, especially, leaves a bit to be desired, and it almost feels like Collins ran out of time while writing it.
This is exactly what YA lit needs to be. It doesn't dumb down the heavy themes or the violence for younger readers, and although that could be seen as a bad thing, I think that kids can handle it. The violence is not gratuitous or anything worse than is seen in many TV shows and movies today, and so I would consider it on a case-by-case basis. If your kid is smart and able to discuss serious themes, then I would recommend it to children as young as nine or ten. And, as always, to adults! This is a perfect example of YA lit that's appealing to a wide range of audiences.