Book Review: No Better than a Jabberjay: 10 Recommendations Based on Hunger Games Eavesdropping

I wrote the following post for  The Nerdy Book Club blog. It was originally published April 7, 2012.

Like many lucky teachers, I was fortunate to experience the opening day of The Hunger Games film adaptation in a theater full of geeked out fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds, sporting Katniss braids and Mockingjay pins. On the bus ride back to school, my students could not stop buzzing about how the movie matched (or in some cases didn’t match) their expectations of the book.  And now, since returning from their second and sometimes third movie showings, I know that I have to be even more mindful about preserving the book hype we had during our days of countdown frenzy.

As members of the Nerdy Book Club, we know that books like The Hunger Games fuel our classroom climate; however, that blaze of energy doesn’t come from just teacher book talks. It starts with the sparks of suggestion we make based on overhearing bits of student conversation. Since coming back from our field trip, I made note of some of the post-movie banter I was a part of or—via eavesdropping—I made myself a part of in order to recommend new books.

1. “Hey man, it doesn’t matter if you didn’t read the first one. Duh. Just jump in with the second one.”

Catching Fire, by Suzanne Collins

Kids want to read what everyone else is reading, even if it’s just to join the trend. Peer influence has a positive effect especially on the choices of my developing readers. In that regard, I see no problem with kids starting with the second book in the trilogy, especially if I know those students will have the strong support of our community of readers.

2. “It was cool how Katniss volunteered for her sister. I can’t stand my lil’ brother, but I’d kill somebody to protect him.” 

Homeboyz, by Alan Lawerence Sitomer

Similar to The Hunger Games, thugs rule the streets in this California gangsta book; however, instead of volunteering to take his sister’s place in the beginning of the book, Teddy Anderson mourns the loss of his baby sister after a she gets “iced” in wrong-place, wrong time drive-by shooting. Although an intelligent and expert computer hacker, Teddy must pay for his elaborate yet failed plans of revenge by tutoring a wanna-be gangbanger through community service.

3. “I looove Peeta, yet I love Gale, too. Mrs. Beaton, I know you’re married and I know you said it’s not at all like Twilight, but who would you choose?”

Matched, by Ally Condie

I don’t normally recommend books that I haven’t read yet, but honestly this one hasn’t spent a day on my shelves. I think the fact that I’m number eight on my own waiting list, behind the most gushy Nicholas Sparks readers, says a lot about this triangular love story.  Even as a somewhat cynical, anti-romance reader, I’m intrigued by the deception of this “perfect” Society.

3. “That was crazy how the Capitol was, like, brainwashed and went along with it. Those people were excited about kids killing each other. That’s some scary stuff! How could you even do that?”

Hitler Youth: Growing Up in Hitler’s Shadow, by Susan Campbell Bartoletti

In this disturbing and heart-breaking nonfiction text, Bartoletti’s gathers multiple real-life voices to explain how Hitler, like President Snow, won and exploited the trust of a nation’s youth. Written in a clear tone shifting between narrative and expository, this book has been passed among my students like a quiet petition seeking peace and a heightened collective consciousness.

4. “I just wanna keep rereading the series over and over. I love how mildly demented Panem is, and I just want to stick with this book forever. “

Divergent, by Veronica Roth

While I totally support Jen Vincent’s declaration of April as “It’s A-OK to Reread!” month, sometimes we know that students get caught in reading ruts because they don’t know where to go next. Divergent offers a safe move for reluctant readers; however, the new conflicts and loyalties will engage readers and invite them to join the faction of Roth followers counting down to the release of her next book.

5. “I wanna know all the hard vocab in this book, because I amKatniss. She’s gotta be so tough. I just wanna learn from her mistakes, so I don’t have to make them.” 

The Book Thief, by Markus Zusak

Fighting to survive by breaking the rules, both Katniss Everdeen and Liesel Meminger, a foster girl living outside of Munich during WWII, work in their own ways to fight the forces against them. While my At-Risk students aren’t working to destabilize brutal totalitarian governments, they are up against forces that threaten to control their lives. Instead of being told from the protagonist’s point of view, Death himself narrates this tale, and—as you’d imagine—Death has a lot to say during this time period. And what’s more, every Nerdy Book Club member has to love a girl with such a strong appetite for books that she must steal them.

6. “Nuh uh, I didn’t jump at all when the mutts appeared… The thing is I didn’t like how their eyes weren’t like in the book; but still, the muttations were the best for sure.” 

Leviathan, by Scott Westerfeld

For the students that were drawn to Panem’s bizarre genetic engineering, like the jabberjays and tracker jackers, Scott Westerfeld’s nod to the emerging steampunk genre seems to be a smooth transition. Blending science fiction and alternate history, this pre-WWI adventure has helped cross the boundaries between my deep-rooted fantasy and history genre lovers.

7. “You didn’t cry when Rue died? What are you—made of stone?”

The Fault in Our Stars, by John Green

Really? Who didn’t cry when she died? And, goodness, if you haven’t read John Green’s latest masterpiece, add it to your To-Read list. As one of my favorite authors, he has the ability to wash his readers in waves of intelligent humor, honesty, and grief, yet like The Hunger Games, somehow you never drown in just one emotion. Hazel’s tragic adventure isn’t about survival, we know that from the start, but more about satisfying a hunger she didn’t even know existed.

8. “Isn’t it awesome when you don’t exist in the real world but only in the world of your book? Especially when the characters think it’s an Ethiopia, and it’s not.” 

“Dude, it’s Utopia, not Ethiopia.”

The Knife of Never Letting Go, by Patrick Ness

Spoken from the mouth of last year’s most defiant reader, The ChaosWalking series has the ability to transport readers to a violent and noisy otherworld. Unlike The Hunger Games strong and stoic female protagonist, Todd Hewitt is relatable, namely because he can’t help but being flawed and opinionated in his quest to find answers about the mysterious Prentisstown.

9. “I loved it, but I read the whole trilogy in just a few days. Does that mean it was too easy for me?”

1984, by George Orwell

Since my students began analyzing the complexity of their choices to create Reading Ladders, per the work of Teri Lesesne, they seem to be answering more of their own questions about the appropriateness of their reading challenges. Suzanne Collins has said that she repeatedly rereads Nineteen Eight-Four, so this post-apocalyptic political novel is probably a good step up for those readers who are looking for greater complexity.

10. “I hated this book! Well, not really. I mean, I loved it. It just made me think the whole time. I still can’t stop. Isn’t that awful?”

The Girl Who Was on Fire: Your Favorite Authors on Suzanne Collins’ Hunger Games Trilogy, by Leah Wilson (Editor)

In my hunt to deepen the complex connection between The Hunger Games and our modern society, this book, which does just that, literally caused me to squeal, running down the hall to share it with my fellow Humanities teacher. After reading Sarah Darer Littman’s “The Politics of Mockingjay” with my whole class, students actually gave up their own lunchtime to independently research the international laws of torture that Gale and Beetee presumably violated in terms of weapon design. Never have I had book that caused students to audibly exclaim “Ooh! Burn!” at intelligent literary argumentation until this one.

Erica Beaton (@B10LovesBooks) lives in Grand Rapids, Michigan with her equally geeky husband. She spends her days chatting about books with an awesome group of nerdy tenth graders, while teaching Humanities in the Tech 21 Project-Based Service Learning Academy at Cedar Springs High School.

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