The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

“Nothing you can take from me was ever worth keeping.”

3/5 stars.
ebook, 528 pages.
Read from June 23, 2020 to June 28, 2020.

I was surprised at how little hype this book generated considering the popularity of The Hunger Games series. I saw it pop up on Goodreads and thought to myself, how did I only hear about this book now?! The book is a prequel The Hunger Game series and is meant to answer many of the questions fans had about the Hunger Games themselves and the world created by the author. Questions like how The Hunger Games came to be, how the war shaped the districts and how Coriolanus Snow came to be the awful man that is depicted in the series.

The war has recently ended and The Hunger Games is the new punishment that the Capitol has come up with for the uprise of the districts. In its infancy, the contestants of The Hunger Games are not celebrities like they are in the games of Katniss’ era. They are starved and tortured and as a result, the districts care little to watch their friends and neighbours suffer on television. Coriolanus Snow is just 18 years old and his family is out of money after the war despite his family’s long and illustrious history within the Capitol. He is, however, an excellent student and has been selected to help mentor this year’s Hunger Games, something that has never been done before. Coriolanus is initially disappointed as he is given the district 12 girl, Lucy, of which he initially believes that she will have no chance of winning thus effecting his placement and potential scholarship into further schooling as well as the future of his family. However, there is something about this girl as she manages to capture the media’s attention with a snake mishap and when she sings and performs a song after her selection. Her ability to win the crowd is intriguing and Coriolanus is nothing if not adaptable and seizes the opportunity to use this to his advantage. He eventually comes to care deeply for his tribute and begins to question the essence of the games and their moral purpose.

I mostly enjoyed this novel. It was interesting to get the back story on The Hunger Games and the growth of Coriolanus Snow however, this book was way too long. It’s clear the author was able to get away with a longer novel due to the success of her previous novels. I believe this novel would have been more successful had the story been halved. Further, the characters were not as robust as they were in the other books. Lucy could have been an extremely interesting character but she just fell flat for me and I didn’t feel as invested in her as I did with, say, Katniss. I was unsure of her motives and how she was able to trust Coriolanus the way she did. I just did not feel as invested in Lucy’s story or in that of Coriolanus’ since he true character started to show fairly quickly and if you’ve read the remainder of the series, you already know what type of person he becomes which steals some of the intrigue this story could have had.

I think the fans of The Hunger Games series were hoping for something that was equally as good and exciting and I, unfortunately, don’t think this novel quite met that need. If you are a fan of the series, however, this book is still worth reading especially if you had questions or wanted to know more about the history around The Hunger Games.

Bridge to Terabithia by Katherine Paterson

“It was up to him to pay back to the world in beauty and caring what Leslie had loaned him in vision and strength. ”

4/5 stars.
197ebook, 208 pages.
Read from January 24, 2020 to Janaury 29, 2020

I had never even heard of this book until a few years ago. It kept coming up in a few blogs in lists as one of those life-changing novels that you read in your youth. You know the ones, books like Harry Potter, The OutsidersThe GiverSpeak, Tuck Everlasting, and Where The Red Fern Grows. Perhaps this book was read more in the US than it was in Canada as it didn’t reach my repertoire as a kid. I wish, however, it had.

Bridge to Terabithia was originally published in 1977 and follows the story of Jess Aarons. Jess and his family don’t have much but he has been training all summer to be the fastest runner in fifth grade. What he doesn’t expect is that a new kid, a girl named Leslie, while absolutely whoop him and all the other fifth graders on day one. While Jess was initially annoyed at losing, especially after he trained to so hard, he comes to form a formidable bond with this fearless new girl who has come from the city. The two of them create a magical place called Terabithia at tree past a stream behind Jess’ house. It’s a magical place that the two of them rule over in which they can dream and imagine. The two, despite coming from very different homes become inseparable. However, a tragedy occurs that changes Jess and their story forever.

“Sometimes it seemed to him that his life was delicate as a dandelion. One little puff from any direction, and it was blown to bits.”

I’ve read reviews of people who have never forgotten how this book made them feel when they read it as a kid and their utter devastation at the loss of one of the characters, however, I still didn’t expect the outcome and was shook when I came to the tragic point in the story. I can see now how devastating a story like this would have been for a kid reading this for the first time as even I was taken back. The story manages to breach the topic of death, loss, and grief in a way that is tangible for a young mind. Unless tragedy touched you in your own youth, chances are you never gave a second thought to death even if you watched or read about it in other mediums. There is something special about this book with the way that death is approached and how the characters cope afterwards that really drives the point home. I could see this book being helpful for a youth dealing with tragedy themselves as it depicts well someone with minimal understanding or experience of death might cope or approach a tragedy. The story encourages deep compassion for people of different circumstances that may not seem to need it at first.

The writing is inviting and the characters enjoyable and relatable, another reason this book is so timeless. We’re looking at 40+ years on and this book is still being read and discussed and that is because death and grief are universal. Despite this, we’re poor at dealing with death as a society and it’s novels like this one provide a useful way for youth to broach and deal with the topic. I would highly recommend this novel if you’ve not read it before or are looking for a middle-grade appropriate read that discusses, love, friendship, death, and grieving.

A Wizard of Earthsea by Ursula K. Le Guin

“It is very hard for evil to take hold of the unconsenting soul.”

4/5 stars.
ebook, 240 pages.
Read from November 26, 2018 to November 27, 2018.

Published in 1968, this novel is one of Ursula K. Le Guin first ventures into children’s literature. She never intended to write children’s literature but thanks to her persuasive publisher this classic fantasy piece exists. Ursula was not only a pioneer in fantasy and science fiction but she also managed to create accessible and YA novels that were also pieces of literature.  I’m not sure how this author went under my radar as she is a highly acclaimed author but I’m glad I’ve found her.

This story the classic coming-of-age story of a young wizard named Ged. Ged has a natural talent for magic which is what gets him away from his poor upbringing and into a prestigious school to hone his magical skills. However, Ged is overly confident and he makes a mistake that will affect him for the rest of his life. After learning the hard way the cost of power, Ged must find a way to deal with the Shadow that he has released upon the world and come to realize that you are defined not by your mistakes but how your rise to overcome and learn from them.

“You thought, as a boy, that a mage is one who can do anything. So I thought, once. So did we all. And the truth is that as a man’s real power grows and his knowledge widens, ever the way he can follow grows narrower: until at last he chooses nothing, but does only and wholly what he must do.”

 

Ged’s trials are what makes this book timeless as the message the story provides to youth is essential, especially when the majority of kids are terrified of making mistakes. The book also emphasizes kinship and friendship with others and with animals and the choices it takes to be brave. That, and what kid doesn’t want to read about winning over dragons and beating their own shadows? This book is exciting enough to appease any youth reader and insightful enough to satisfy any teacher or parent. In a way, I am surprised that this series doesn’t have more a cult following as I imagined it reading like the Harry Potter of its day.

What is also pivotal in this book, especially considering its date of publication is the colour of Ged’s skin. Ged is described as dark-skinned and is not Caucasian, despite the cover art on most of the earlier published books. Imagine the ethnic minority readers this would have spoken to in the late 60s, and even today, who might have never had a character to admire or look up before that looked like them. Ursula became known for pushing boundaries on gender, race, environmentalism and more in some of her other works adding that exceptional element of brilliance to her writing.

Earthsea-painting-CharlesVess
Image by Charles Vess

While I have heard that this novel isn’t necessarily Ursula’s best work it laid the foundation for a phenomenal series and I know for me, it has made me want to read her more well-known adult novels and series. I would highly recommend that this book and its series be added as an essential to any fantasy-readers list and for those that love YA. This book is perfect for almost all ages making it a great book to re aloud to children or for those kids reading on their own.