The Ballad of Songbirds & Snakes by Suzanne Collins
I vividly remember reading The Hunger Games for the first time. It was Thanksgiving break, 2008. I had been looking forward to the break to read and relish it. I had been hearing all the buzz about it, of course; in my library, the book was, predictably, in high demand. Glued to the red chair in the corner of my living room, I devoured the book in one day. I was obsessed. I looked forward to the sequels (luckily, only a year to wait for each), had a blast talking about the books with students, and was excited for the first movie to come out in 2012. Then years of movie premieres to anticipate (Mockingjay would be TWO movies)! I owned the books and owned the merch. The last movie was released in 2015. All of them were fantastic. And then the HG fervor waned and eventually went dormant. Flash forward 5 years, May of 2020. I knew the prequel was being released but I didn’t even add it to my TBR - too many other books to read. Then, a couple of weeks ago, I was browsing the public library’s YA section, seeking salvation from my minor reading slump, and I saw The Ballad of Songbirds of Snakes. I knew I had the solution to my slump but I had no idea that I was about to read one of my favorite books of the year or that reading it would rekindle those exciting HG feelings I had back in 2008.
It’s the tenth anniversary of the Hunger Games and the Capitol is trying something new - Academy students will serve as mentors to the tributes. Coriolanus Snow knows that this is his opportunity to impress those who award the scholarship to the University. He’s a Snow, which means he shouldn’t have to worry about a scholarship. He, his cousin, and his grandmother (all who remain of the Snows) are living in a Capitol penthouse. As one of the elite families in the Capitol, their name still commands respect; however, they no longer have the money to back it up. Their penthouse has been gutted of everything valuable. Their pantry is always near empty. The war was devastating. Coriolanus knows he is destined for greatness which is why he is completely deflated when he is assigned to mentor the female tribute from District 12. At the reaping, Lucy Gray, the selected tribute, shatters Snow’s assumptions and proves she will be a force to be reckoned with both in the arena and in Snow's life
The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is a deep dive into the mind of Snow and how his relationship with Lucy Gray; his experience with the sadistic and unhinged Head Gamemaker, Dr. Gaul; his involvement with the Games; and his intimacy with war and poverty turned him into the tyrannical President of Panem and infamous adversary of Katniss Everdeen.
At 500 pages and small text, A Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is not a quick read. The original Hunger Games trilogy was an action-packed page-turner. This is not that, but I still devoured every page. What I loved about the book:
A Villain’s Backstory. I can now put Snow’s on my list of favorite villain backstories, along with Darth Vader and Lord Voldemort. Although, obviously, none of Snow’s experiences justify his later decisions, but readers will definitely see how he gets there.
Progression of the Games. The 10th Hunger Games looked much, much different from the games readers know. The Games are televised but very, very few people in the districts watch it. Tributes are transported to the Capitol via cargo train, with little to no food. Once they arrive in the Capitol, they are literally kept in a pit in the abandoned zoo (all of the animals were eaten during the war) where they are on display for the entertainment of Capitol citizens. The Games are held in an old sports arena where gamemakers design challenges but nothing even close to the degree of the obstacles in the Games we know. The contrast between the pampering of the tributes in the 74th Hunger Games to the abuse and neglect of the tributes in the 10th Hunger Games is jarring.
Lucy Gray. When Lucy Gray is selected as the District 12 tribute, she immediately causes a stir. As she makes her way to the stage in her “dress made of rainbow ruffles,”, she slips a snake down the blouse of the mayor’s daughter. Amid the shrieking and confusion, Lucy Gray just lazily continues her journey without looking back. Once she’s on stage, she breaks into a haunting song (reminiscent of Katniss singing “The Hanging Tree”). The camera drinks her in. When she finishes, she blows that camera a kiss and says, “My friends call me Lucy Gray - I hope you will, too!” Lucy Gray is not cunning; she is charming, winning, talented, and resourceful and, above all, wants to survive.
Music. Lucy Gray sings many songs throughout the novel; these songs have various effects on Snow (not only in this story but in his future, too). Katniss sings “Deep in the Meadow” to Rue as she lay dying (she sings it again while watching her children play in the epilogue). Probably the most memorable song of The Hunger Games was “The Hanging Tree.” It was a song taught to Katniss by her father and one that became an anthem, of sorts, for the Mockingjay. Welp, it was Lucy Gray who composed it. How cool is that? Speaking of cool . . . I just discovered Maiah Wynne, a musician who composed all of Lucy Gray’s songs and filmed videos as Lucy Gray herself. They are amazing!!! Watch "The Hanging Tree" below but you’ll want to go to YouTube later to watch the entire playlist.
Tigris. This is so not of major importance to the story but something I realized after reading that blew me away. Remember Tigris from Mockingjay? She’s the friend of Cressida who hides everyone on their way to assassinate Snow? SHE’S CORIOLANUS’ COUSIN! The two are raised together by their
grandmother after their parents’ deaths.
Eventually (according to Tigris in Mockingjay), Snow personally fired her for being too surgically enhanced. Knowing what we now know of Snow, though, perhaps he fired her for other reasons. Tigris also showed happiness when Katniss revealed her plan to kill Snow. Obviously, their once-close relationship severed sometime between the 11th and 74th Hunger Games. Fascinating.
As an original Hunger Games fan who didn’t know she was craving a revisit to those reading-it-for-the-first-time feelings, this book was an absolute pleasure to read. How much of my enjoyment was nostalgia and how much of it was the quality of the story? I’ll be interested to see if those entering this world for the first time will find it as enjoyable. I’m thrilled that The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes is being made into a movie by Lionsgate and the same team that brought us the first three Hunger Games movies. Bring on that 2008 anticipation!
Thanks to the Hunger Games Wiki on Fandom for giving me the inspiration for this review and for leading me down the Hunger Games rabbit hole. It was fun! All images in this post (other than the fan art) were found on the wiki.
Check out Ahiku's art on Tumblr. She is amazing.