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Young Adult Novel – The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes

 

THE BALLAD OF SONGBIRDS AND SNAKES:

A Hunger Games Novel

Written by Suzanne Collins

(Scholastic; $27.99, Ages 12 and up)

 

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Coriolanus Snow: Anyone who has read or seen The Hunger Games knows this man. Yet, who was he before becoming the evil overload of Panem? In The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, we meet Snow at age eighteen. His cousin, Tigris—yes, that Tigris—and his Grandma’am are all he’s got. They haven’t had enough food in ages and aren’t far from losing their once-luxurious housing. Facing an uncertain future upon graduation, Snow must achieve personal recognition at school, in hopes of being awarded funds toward University tuition.

It’s reaping day again and this year the kids from Snow’s class are assigned tributes to mentor as their final project. His District 12 girl is quite a letdown at first. Yet, once she’s in the spotlight, Lucy Gray proves to be a charmer and that may get her through for a while. Snow, at first, sees Gray’s performance in the Games merely as an assignment to score highly on but, soon, a complex relationship builds.

Suzanne Collins reveals the surprising origin of the Games. The book, as expected, is fast-paced with many plot twists. Snow and his classmates who are also assigned tributes are drilled by Dr. Gaul, the wonderfully creepy Head Gamemaker (who may just lock you in a cage in her lab for fun). She prods kids with questions such as what the Capitol’s strategy should be now that the war is over but may never truly never be won. When questioned whether there is a point to the neon colors of her snakes, she answers, “There is a point to everything or nothing at all, depending on your worldview.” These moments with Gaul reveal the book’s deeper messages about power, whether wielded with a weapon or a rose.

I’m a fan of the trilogy and very much enjoyed this glimpse into what happened decades before the girl on fire burst onto the scene and the screen. I would be happy to continue along with Snow, filling the gap, until the day he sees Katniss Everdeen become District 12’s first volunteer for the 74th Annual Hunger Games. The folk tune, “The Hanging Tree,” reaches across the years, uniting the stories.

 

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The Exceptional Matilda Turns 25!

Long before I was a parent I got a taste of Roald Dahl’s humor in the early ’70s via the popular film Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory. Then, in London some thirty years later, I heard The Magic Finger audio book. Now that I’ve read an actual book and seen Quentin Blake’s spot-on illustrations for Matilda (Puffin, $6.99, ages 7 and up), I am eager to see the acclaimed Broadway musical. It seems that Dahl’s work is brilliantly entertaining in any form presented.

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Roald Dahl, also known for Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, James and the Giant Peach, and Fantastic Mr. Fox, had a wonderful and wild imagination with a wit to match.  And though celebrating its 25th anniversary, the book remains as popular with readers today as it was when first published.

Matilda put a smile on my face and introduced me to one of the most OTT characters I’ve seen in print in a long time. If the name Miss Trunchbull doesn’t conjure up images of a walking, talking mega-sized Medieval torture machine (AKA the Headmistress), I don’t know what will!! Matilda is a child prodigy. Yet, unlike the children whose parents gush over their real or perceived little Einsteins, Matilda’s parents do absolutely NOTHING to nurture their four-year-old daughter. In fact, they barely treat her with indifference being so caught up in their own lunacy.

Hungry for knowledge to feed her growing mind, Matilda makes her way to the local library. There the librarian, Mrs. Phelps helps the youngster find books she’d like. Eventually Matilda takes home books to travel the world from the comfort of her bedroom while avoiding the dishonesty and rudeness of her family. A second-hand car dealer, Matilda’s father, Mr. Wormwood, boasts of tricking his customers and profiting from his deviousness. Readers will thoroughly love all the practical jokes Matilda plays on her dad as a way of getting back at him for his misdeeds.  Blake’s pen and ink artwork perfectly captures all the hijinks in the book, especially those occurring at Crunchem Hall Primary School, and enhance what is already a rollicking good read.

Fortunately for Matilda, school takes her away from her unpleasant parents and there she finds compassion from her teacher, aptly named Miss Honey. Miss Honey is in awe of Matilda’s genius and provides the young girl with the attention and nurturing she’s missed at home. Unfortunately Miss Honey is so very poor and suffering due to the unfortunate loss of income and housing at the hands of a cruel aunt who just happens to be Miss Trunchbull. Now that Matilda has an ally in Miss Honey, she’s emboldened to fight back at the horrendous Headmistress and by doing so discovers a magical power that will help her achieve her goal. The pleasure kids get from Matilda’s success is why this book continues to be in demand. A happy ending that assures the Trunchbull’s comeuppance, restores Miss Honey’s inheritance and Matilda’s future well-being.

I realize that, having had children attend primary school in London,  I am partial to Dahl’s language and exaggerated style but there is simply no denying his gift for great storytelling. The book is certain to engage even the most reluctant of readers with its funny characters, crazy plot and satisfying finish.

– Reviewed by Ronna Mandel

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