By the Book - Literary Life Lessons

Never Good Enough: The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes by Suzanne Collins

I started reading Suzanne Collins's The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes because I needed something easy. Well, that's what I got.

Some people never seem to be satisfied with what they’ve got. Sometimes, I’m one of them. I often keep complaining about things, but when I put my mind to something else, that doesn’t seem to be just right either. This is what happened when I was reading Suzanne Collins’s Hunger Games prequel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes. I felt connected to its main character Coriolanus Snow, because he is just as insatiable as I am, and I started a mental conversation with him. Read on!

Me: Oh, Coriolanus, thanks to you I finally feel like I can talk to someone who isn’t satisfied easily, just like me. I only started reading your story because I was too tired and preoccupied to read this highly literary book, and yours seemed quite straightforward-…

Coriolanus: Straightforward? Me? Have you any idea what I’ve been through? We Snows used to be rich and powerful, but now nothing remained of us. I can’t tell anyone we haven’t got a single penny left, and we might even have to sell our home. I want to go University, but we can’t afford it. Thankfully, there’s the Hunger Games, and I’m mentor to a girl of District Twelve, the poorest district, and the least likely to kill the other tributes, twelve boys and eleven girls. I will make sure she wins.

Me: Now that’s what I like about you: you deal with things. You’re proud, you’re determined, you’re ambitious, and you’re intelligent. I’m glad I started reading your story, because there’s a lot of people who can learn something from you.

Let me explain a few things here: Coriolanus starts out as a songbird – albeit a black-and-white one. Also, Lucy Gray is quite literally a songbird. Because she sings. And because there’s songbirds in her disctrict. Sounds obvious, right?

Coriolanus: It’s about keeping one’s head high. I know I have one goal in life, and nothing will keep me from it. I think. But that Lucy Gray Baird, my tribute, she sure is awfully pretty, and she seems to trust me when I tell her that I am going to try my best to help her survive. Oh, and when she sings, I just wish she were singing just for me.

Me: See, you’ve got determination and a heart! And you’re being so kind to your friends as well. You’re right, this story is not as one-dimensional as I was afraid it might have been.

Coriolanus: They’re not really my friends. I’m just being kind to them because they can help me climb the social ladder.

Me: Right, well, thanks for being so honest. I’m not sure I would be like that, but it’s refreshing to talk to someone who is so cold-blooded. It’s not often the main character in a novel is, quite frankly, rather insufferable.

Coriolanus: Insufferable? I just want to be with Lucy – there’s no chance I’m ever going to University after I cheated to help her win the Hunger Games, so I’ll just say goodbye to my life and hope we’ll have a glorious life.

Me: So you’ll just run away, after you’ve killed several people, and left your so-called friends to rot? Here’s what’s wrong with you as a character, and with the entire novel The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes: it isn’t very consistent. We know President Snow from the Hunger Games trilogy, and this is supposed to be his origin story, but there’s not much of a story, actually. It’s just a repetition of all the things people like about The Hunger Games.

Coriolanus: Well, we’ve been talking about my story for quite some time, now. You’ve told me how much you could learn from me.

Snow has turned into a snake. I cut the picture in straight lines, symbolising his lack of positive qualities.

Me: There’s nothing to be learnt from you. Your friends and family hardly have any personalities, and they’re just there to serve your megalomania. Lucy Gray, the girl you’re supposedly in love with, is simply too perfect – she doesn’t have any flaws!

Coriolanus: And are you saying I’m just one big flaw?

Me: I’m saying your story is. It’s exactly the same as the previous three Hunger Games novels: heroes and villains, all of you.

Coriolanus: I know I’m a hero.

Me: Right. Well, Suzanne Collins makes sure, with everything she writes about you, to explain why you’re not. It might be the teacher in me, but I hate it when children are reading books that are so simple that they don’t have to think for themselves anymore. Your story, and the way in which it was written, feels empty.

Coriolanus: But you just said I was interesting.

Me: I changed my mind, just like you keep doing. I know I only started reading this book because it was easy, and I needed that because I was too busy to read proper literature…

Coriolanus: I’m not proper literature?

Me: No, not at all. Whenever symbolism is used, it is explained. Whenever a song is sung, it is analysed. Whenever a difficult word is used, it is defined. Come on, that’s not literature.

Snow: But I’m President Snow! You have to read my story! You have to listen to me! I’m powerful! I’m amazing! I don’t care how much it cost me, but I’m finally at the top of the food chain again!

The name Lucy Gray was based on the eponymous poem by William Wordsworth. Like The Hunger Games, Collins took inspiration from other sources. And of course she keeps explaining it.

Me: See, now what Collins would do was explain why you’ve changed your name. You’ve accepted you’re the bad guy. But guess what: I don’t care. Your story could have been so much more; it could have been an actual exploration of the notion of chaos and the role of society, about the philosophical notion of war and peace, and how one needs the other, but it’s not. Instead it’s just a simple boy-meets-girl, boy-falls-in-love-with-girl, boy-realises-he-can-do-better-than-girl, boy-only-loves-himself story, and that’s it.

Snow: Sounds like you’re not easily content.

Me: I’m not. Your story didn’t leave me satisfied, though, and I continuously kept wishing I was still reading my can’t-get-through-it-because-my-brains-aren’t-functioning-well proper literature. Not this drivel.

Snow: Why, then, did you read it all in two days?

Me: Because sometimes I, like my students, need some fast-food books to satisfy my needs – but somehow, I always feel hungry afterwards.

Snow: Fast-food? Is that what you’re calling me now?

Me: Yes. It hurts, doesn’t it?

Snow: No. Not at all. Just don’t let my family, friends, and University people hear it. Please. I’ll just make sure I’ll have you killed. Here, fancy a cup of tea…?

Me: See, so transparent again. No, I won’t drink your poison. I won’t read your story again. I won’t tell anyone they should read it. I know we are both quite demanding, but that’s the only characteristic we share.

Snow: But I’m President. People love me! I’m rich! I’m famous! I am Mr Hunger Games! Snow lands on top!

Me: And there’s yet another silly metaphor. I’m leaving you now, before you explain its significance to me. Bye!

Finally, I got rid of that ghastly man. What did you think of The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes? Or of The Hunger Games? Do you think I’m being to harsh on Snow, or on Suzanne Collins? What’s your favourite young-adult novel? Please share your opinions in the comments below! Also, don’t forget to follow me for more book-related posts!

Here are the three ingredients for the title – and the rest of the novel: a snake (Snow), a songbird (Lucy Gray), and a ballad (a story in song, this one by William Wordsworth, a Romantic poet – and one interested in society, like Snow).

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