Suzanne Collins’ newest novel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, is the prequel to her widely-popular Hunger Games trilogy. The story centers around a young President Coriolanus Snow who, 64 years before the events of The Hunger Games, is struggling in his post-war poverty to stay afloat. When he is chosen as a mentor for the tenth Hunger Games, Coriolanus is given the chance of a lifetime to bring glory back to the house of Snow. But as emotions collide with ambitions, Coriolanus is asked to face and define the true nature of humanity.
President Snow’s story in The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes sheds light on the question that has troubled readers—and parents—since the release of the first book: why focus so closely on the killing of children? Just as she did with the games themselves, Collins carefully crafts the story of the creation and transformation of the games to reflect questions about human nature, making readers wonder: are the players those in the arena or those out of it?
Like many people, I was swept up by the wave of young adult dystopian novels starting with The Hunger Games in fifth grade. Despite having read book after book and series after series, The Hunger Games is the only one that has come back to haunt me. Learning about realist theories in international relations and about the state of nature in theology inspired me to reread the entire trilogy just in time to hear about this prequel.
At first I was wary that Collins had chosen to focus her prequel on the Capitol and President Snow. To me, when the Capitol implemented the Hunger Games, it surrendered its humanity; for those within the Capitol, I had no pity. But a few pages in, I found myself sympathizing with the Capitol. In this book, the glittery, plump Capitol citizens are replaced with the mentors: high school seniors for whom the Hunger Games is merely a school assignment. From their teasing of their teachers to their dislike of group projects, they are painfully familiar, painfully human. By humanizing the Capitol, Collins has made it impossible for readers to brush off the cruelty of the Hunger Games as simply inhuman.
When I faced my parents at the dinner table in fifth grade after they received an email from a concerned parent about the premise of The Hunger Games, I countered their “it’s about killing kids” argument by saying I was old enough to understand that it was fiction, an allegory, a lesson. But now I see that though I was old enough to understand how it was fake, I wasn’t old enough to understand how it wasn’t.
At some point we learn that our world is not as safe as we think, we realize that humans are not as good as we want to believe. At some point The Hunger Games stops being a book and starts being a mirror, revealing to us the extreme inequality and violence of our own world. When stripped of its Arena and futuristic technology, The Hunger Games becomes familiar. Instead of the districts against the Capitol, it’s the bottom 99% against the top 1%, the systematically oppressed against the system. In the words of my mom, again at the dinner table all these years later: “Our world has certainly done worse.”
I finished the book feeling confused and unsettled. But the series’s iconic mockingjay never repeats anything just once. The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes and the entire Hunger Games trilogy deserve a revisit, a reread, and an encore.