By Ekta R. Garg, A.uthor

August 20, 2020

The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

Release date: May 19, 2020

Genre: YA dystopian fiction

Sequels can be so hard, especially when the original work was a smash hit. I think it’s a paradox of sorts for a.uthors. We want to be read; we want readers to share the adventures our characters are having. Yet when that happens, and readers clamor for more, I imagine it can be intimidating for any a.uthor, even a seasoned one, to come back to the work to create something new yet familiar.

It’s a demanding task and a tall one. While J.K. Rowling may have one of the biggest hits of all time on her hands with the original seven Harry Potter books, reactions have been mixed to the subsequent books in that universe. What readers may not understand is that when writers come back to something that is popular, the writers aren’t in the same places in their lives. Something as simple as moving homes to having a profound life experience can alter the way we approach a story. Readers want what they felt and thought when they encountered the original work, but authors might see the popular story in a whole new light.

Given all this, when I heard that Suzanne Collins was writing a new Hunger Games book, I wondered whether she’d be able to do the world of Panem and what Katniss experienced justice. I also wondered, on a practical, writing level, how Collins would go about it. The end of Mockingjay reassures us that Katniss and Peeta have built a new life together. It might be a little fragile at times—it would be for anyone who had lived through two bouts in the arena—but it’s their own. They never have to worry about anyone, especially their own children, entering the arena again.

I guess I’d assumed on some subconscious level that Collins would do what most people do when they write a sequel: continue the story in chronological order from where she left it. Yet she didn’t, and I think that was a savvy move not only from a marketing standpoint but also a writing one. Because, really, what more could we say or hear about Katniss that wouldn’t take away from her time as tribute? Filling that role defined, shaped, and shattered who she was as a person. To try to extend her story would have reduced her experiences to something told for pure shock value.

A real-life headline, if you will.

Instead, Collins went back, almost to the inception of the Games. She filled in the back story. She let us know why Snow was so malicious. I mean, in The Hunger Games trilogy it’s easy to see he is. But with Ballad, now we know of the foundational elements that made him so. We understand why he could look at dying people as an opportunity to elevate himself in society.

Some critics have complained about the length of the book and its supposedly liberal leanings. I think Collins was doing what most a.uthors do when they’ve built a complex, three-dimensional world with love and care. She was exploring that world and giving us the opportunity to explore it with her.

As a writer and budding a.uthor myself, I found the book fascinating. We got to spend more time in Panem and see what it was before it became the Panem that Katniss lived in. And the Panem of Ballad felt just as lived in as Katniss’s version. I think that’s what I found incredible, from a writing standpoint. Because for Collins, like her readers, this version of Panem was new too. Yet she relays the details with such ease that we don’t get the sense she’s building from scratch. It’s almost like she’s a scribe on the streets who’s just taking down the details as she witnesses them.

Early in the book, after Lucy Gray has been named the girl tribute from District 12, Snow and the other students get into line for a buffet lunch. At one time the Snow family was one of the most affluent in the Capitol. By the start of Ballad, Snow, his cousin, Tigris, and their grandmother are staying alive by working their way through tins of dried lima beans, bits of cabbage, and hard bread. Food, then, is important to Snow.

“[T]he smell of food from the buffet wafted over the audience. Fresh-baked bread. Onions. Meat. Coriolanus could not keep his stomach from growling… [H]e had to use all the discipline he could muster not to rush for the buffet.

“During the war, the rebels had held the food-producing districts. Taking a page out of the Capitol’s playbook, they’d tried to starve the Capitol into submission using food—or a lack thereof—as a weapon. Now the tables had turned again, with the Capitol controlling the supply and taking it one step further, twisting the knife into the districts’ hearts with the Hunger Games. Amid the violence of the Games, there was a silent agony that everyone in Panem had experienced, the desperation for enough sustenance to bring you to the following sunrise.”

The bleakness with which Collins “reports” the fact about how the rebels held the advantage for a little while is palpable. When Ballad begins, ten years have passed since the end of the war and the start of the Hunger Games. Here, though, even with the Games still being a fairly ragtag affair, they’re slowly become an accepted way of life, along with the food insecurity the Capitol is using as a weapon.

I hope in my own work that I can create worlds like this. Whether it’s for a standalone book or a series, I want readers to come to my stories and feel like the characters really live there. That the settings aren’t flat painted boards on a stage just waiting for the characters to enter and exit according to my whims.

Whatever else anyone might think of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, no writer can deny the talent and experience that Suzanne Collins possesses as an a.uthor.