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The novel "Hunger Games" has spent 50 weeks on The New York Times' bestseller list for kid's chapter books. It takes the concept of the reality show to an extreme. In the future, 24 young people are forced to fight each other to the death in an annual televised ritual. "Hunger Games" is the first book in a planned trilogy. The eagerly awaited second book, "Catching Fire," comes out this week.
NPR's Lynn Neary talked with the author.
LYNN NEARY: As a child, Suzanne Collins was obsessed with Greek mythology. And one of her favorites was the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. She was struck by the cruel punishment that Crete had imposed on Athens for being on the wrong side of a war. Every year, the Athenians had to send seven young men and seven maidens to be thrown into the labyrinth and devoured by the Minotaur.
Ms. SUZANNE COLLINS (Author, "Hunger Games"): And even when I was a child I was blown away by how evil that was. It was like Crete was sending this very clear message which was, if you mess with us, we will do something worse than kill you. We will kill your children.
NEARY: In Collins' story, 24 young men and women from 12 districts in what was once North America but is now a country called Panem, are sent to the Hunger Games every year as punishment for a war that happened 75 years ago. Collins says her idea for the book began to form one night while she channel surfed. On one channel, she saw images of kids fighting in a real war. On another, young people were competing for money in a reality TV show.
Ms. COLLINS: If you take elements of the two types of programming I was watching, reality television and war coverage: competition, fighting to the death, entertainment, violence, audience participation, what you come up with is a gladiator game.
NEARY: Collins remembered the gladiator movies that were popular when she was young, most notably "Spartacus," the story of a slave who led an unsuccessful but heroic rebellion. One scene in that film has become iconic. The defeated slaves have been told they will not be punished as long as they turn in their leader. As Spartacus stands up to identify himself, the others join in one last act of defiance to protect him.
(Soundbite of movie, "Spartacus")
Mr. KIRK DOUGLAS (Actor): (As Spartacus) I'm Spartacus.
Unidentified Man #1: I am Spartacus.
Unidentified Man #2: I am Spartacus.
Unidentified Man #3: I am Spartacus.
Unidentified Man #4: I am Spartacus.
Unidentified Man #5: I am Spartacus.
Unidentified People: I'm Spartacus.
NEARY: Collins uses a similar image in "Catching Fire." The heroine of the trilogy, 16-year-old Katniss Everdeen, won the Hunger Games, but she also defied the all-powerful government during the competition with symbolic gestures and actions. In doing so, she has inspired the stirrings of rebellion across the country. In this excerpt from the book, Katniss appears before a crowd during a government-sponsored victory tour.
Ms. COLLINS: What happens next is not an accident. It is too well executed to be spontaneous because it happened in complete unison. Every person in the crowd presses the three middle fingers of their left hand against their lips and extends it to me. It is our sign from District 12, the last goodbye I gave Rue in the arena. If I hadn't spoken to President Snow, this gesture might move me to tears, but with his recent orders to calm the districts fresh in my ears, it fills me with dread.
NEARY: Only gradually, says Collins, does Katniss begin to understand that she has become a symbol of the spreading rebellion.
Ms. COLLINS: It's this awakening. This is not one who - a character who starts out as this hot-headed rebel. This is someone who has, you know, rebel status thrust upon her and is not always comfortable with it, did not plan on it, but eventually is able to carry it.
NEARY: Collins lures in young readers of both genders with a suspenseful plot, nonstop action and even a love triangle. But she does not hold back on the violence inherent in her story, nor does she apologize for it. Violence, she says, finds its way into young lives, whether we like it or not. Children's literature expert Anita Silvey says the violence in the books is a reflection of what's happening in the culture.
Ms. ANITA SILVEY (Children's Literature Expert): Reality TV has gone lower and lower every season. We are sending our young people, you know, over to the other side of the world to kill young people. And children and teens are killing each other in schools. When you realize it, she has all those elements to throw into the cauldron of story. I don't think it's surprising that a book like "The Hunger Games" comes out of that.
NEARY: Collins believes her target audience: kids just entering adolescence, is just the right age to take on the challenge that underlies her story.
Ms. COLLINS: They are themselves beginning to question authority. And they are themselves beginning to look at government and situations throughout the world and wonder if they're moral or not. And you have to have that. You have to at some time in your life begin to question the environment, the political situation around you and decide, you know, whether it's right or not and if it isn't, what part you're going to play in that.
NEARY: The story of the rebellion, which was ignited in the first book and has begun spreading in "Catching Fire," will likely grow more important as the trilogy draws to a close. Collins is already hard at work on that final book, even as her young readers are just cracking open the latest chapter of her story.
Lynn Neary, NPR News, Washington.
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