The yearlong Catching Fire countdown will finally end on September 1, the laydown date for the second installment of the Hunger Games trilogy. With an announced first printing of 350,000 copies, Suzanne Collins’s dystopian tale is the first big children’s book of the fall.

Jeff Kinney’s new Diary of a Wimpy Kid: Dog Days, on sale October 12, may be bigger in terms of print run, as is Kate DiCamillo’s The Magician’s Elephant, out September 8. But the talk about the new Hunger Games sequel is louder. “It’s the one I’ve seen and heard the most buzz for,” said Heather Doss, children’s book buyer at the wholesaler Bookazine. “Dan Brown is a really good comparison.”

Booksellers and librarians fueled that buzz after receiving highly coveted ARCs at Book Expo America and at the American Library Association annual conference (they’ve been a hot commodity all summer). And this week, Twilight author Stephenie Meyer generated even more talk when she wrote on her blog that Catching Fire “surpassed” her expectations. “It’s just as exciting as The Hunger Games, but even more gut wrenching, because you already know these characters, you’ve already suffered with them,” she wrote.

Diana Tixier Herald, a Young Adult Library Services Association Quick Picks for Reluctant Readers committee member who works for the Mesa County Valley School District in Grand Junction, Colo., said teens like the book’s romance (“central to the whole teen experience”) and its dystopian theme (“the whole survival thing... always holds appeal”). “The Hunger Games was one of those books that got kids who normally wouldn’t read to read,” she says. She had two advance copies of Catching Fire and told kids in her book group that they would get first shot at them if they sent her a review of the book of her choice. That week she received 30 book reviews.

Fans are eager to find out what will happen to their heroine, Katniss, who angered government officials with the crafty way she survived the 74th annual fight-to-the-death games on national TV. Scholastic has 500,000 copies of the first book in print; rights to both books have been sold in 35 languages.

Booksellers are prominently displaying the Catching Fire book and audio, which Scholastic is releasing simultaneously, and Barnes & Noble is already featuring Catching Fire in the “Coming Soon” section of its teen page. The chain will place The Hunger Games and Catching Fire in endcap and front-of-store floor displays and include it in its Teen Reads promotions.

Borders will offer this mockingjay lapel pin for 50% off the retail price of $6.99, with a book purchase.

Borders filmed a one-hour Borders Book Club discussion with Collins, three adults (including a librarian) and six teenagers. On release day, the talk will go up on Borders’ Web site and play in the 90 (out of 513) Borders stores with TVs. Borders has filmed such discussions with just three other YA authors: Stephenie Meyer for Eclipse, Sarah Dessen for Along for the Ride and Christopher Paolini for Brisingr. With Scholastic’s permission, Borders also created a mockingjay pin, which it plans to sell for 50% off its $6.99 retail price with the purchase of Catching Fire. Finally, on September 1, Borders will highlight Catching Fire in its weekly email blast to all 34 million Borders customer loyalty program members. “The storyline to this is just so catching,” said Liz Marotte, Borders’ YA buyer. “Forty-year-old men can enjoy it as much as 16-year-old girls.”

Though it’s not a bookstore, Fred Meyer, the Portland, Ore.-based one-stop shopping chain, will give Catching Fire prominent double placement both in check-out fixtures and in endcaps next to Meyer’s books. Shelftalkers and a channel strip will call out the title as a “buyer’s pick.”

Scholastic is also marketing Catching Fire with an online countdown clock to the on-sale date, an audio clip of Collins reading from both books, a video trailer, a downloadable poster and bookmarks, and buddy icons and wallpapers (click here to view). “We wanted to give people the tools to fuel that excitement,” said Tracy van Straaten, v-p of publicity for Scholastic’s trade publishing group. Scholastic already distributed 20,000 mockingjay buttons at conventions and to retailers, and it held a Hunger Games writing contest this spring, with the winner getting a trip to New York City to meet Collins.

The publisher is shipping more than 2,000 floor displays in two configurations: a nine-copy display featuring Catching Fire, and a 12-copy display featuring both titles. And next month Scholastic will introduce a Catching Fire online game on its Hunger Games site. Collins has given interviews to USA Today and to NPR’s “All Things Considered,” both of which Scholastic expects to run on or close to the book’s release date. “The viral buzz for this has been deafening,” says van Straaten. “This has been such a word-of-mouth phenomenon from the get-go—even within Scholastic. The fans for this book have an insatiable hunger for it, truly.”

This enormous Catching Fire banner is drawing plenty of attention at Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa.

Independent booksellers plan to host parties and hold contests and book group discussions. Earlier this month, Children’s Book World in Haverford, Pa., hung Scholastic’s BookExpo America banner for Catching Fire from the balcony outside its store. “The size of this banner is the way we feel about this book,” says Sarah Todd, a bookseller at Children’s Book World. “People who don’t know about the series are coming in and saying, ‘What’s up with the banner?’ It’s piquing curiosity.” The store, which has already sold 250 copies of The Hunger Games, has ordered 150 copies of Catching Fire. Some will be sold to members of the store’s adult book group, which reads only young-adult titles, and has already shared and discussed an ARC of Catching Fire. “They all want the collection of three [Hunger Games titles],” says Heather Hebert, who coordinates the book group. “To be able to read a book quickly but that’s still meaty is wonderful. She’s such a great writer.”

Some retailers are hosting Catching Fire launch parties, though they’re not doing it in Harry Potter-esque numbers. “It’s more a sign of the recession that people are scaling back,” said Bookazine’s Doss. Of course, Catching Fire parties are also harder to throw than Harry Potter ones, particularly since the food in the story is a far cry from chocolate frogs and exotically flavored jelly beans. “It doesn’t really lend itself to fun and games,” said Kathleen Mahoney, a youth services librarian at the Brewster Ladies’ Library in Cape Cod. “It’s more the type of thing kids would talk about and discuss than actually have a party about.” Her male readers want to know if there will be a war, and her female readers are more interested in the love triangle. The Cape Cod library system already has about 40 people on its Catching Fire waiting list.

Parties are also tricky because the book comes out on a Tuesday, rather than on a weekend. But many booksellers are holding celebrations anyway—especially in cities where school is not yet in session. The Flying Pig Bookstore in Shelburne, Vt., is hosting an 8 a.m. brunch for prospective readers, who will predict what they think is going to happen in Catching Fire. The most accurate guesser will get a free book. Attendees will also complete a trivia quiz and word search, as well as visit a “training room,” complete with magnetic darts for archery.

Co-owner Elizabeth Bluemle is also considering parachuting down supplies from the store’s upstairs loft. She and her partner, Josie Leavitt, have ordered 200 copies of Catching Fire—a lot for a town of 9,000. “Everybody loves this book,” says Bluemle. “It’s got great characters who are memorable. The stakes are really high.” Dystopian novels are always appealing, especially for teenagers, she adds, “because they’re starting to become aware of the hypocrisies in their own world.”

On Scholastic's Hunger Games Web site, the publisher is counting down to the release of Catching Fire.

It helps, too, that the Flying Pig sold 150 copies of The Hunger Games, which is on the Vermont state reading list for fourth through eighth graders for the 2009/2010 school year. Still, Leavitt always sells the book to parents with a caveat. “I say this is about kids killing kids,” she said. “It sounds abhorrent—but it totally works.” One reason sales numbers for The Hunger Games weren’t even higher at their store, Leavitt speculates, is that “it’s a book where one kid reads it, and 10 kids read that same copy.”

Devaney Doak & Garrett Booksellers in Farmington, Maine, is holding a Catching Fire Discussion and Support Group on September 8, a week after the book comes out. Blue Manatee, a children’s book store in Cincinnati, Ohio, plans to hold a party with strategy games after school on September 1 (a few sample questions: Do you like to compete? What do you think are your strengths?). Events coordinator Kelli Gleiner said kids may also play the roles of tributes and stylists, who would come up with costume ideas.

At The King’s English Bookshop in Salt Lake City, children’s buyer and manager Margaret Brennan Neville is running a mock Hunger Games contest. She plans to create an online “application” for kids to fill out about whether they’re fit enough to play the Hunger Games, and will ask them about their best survival skill and their ideal tool. She is not hosting a party since it’s a school night, when parents wouldn’t want their kids out at midnight.

Scholastic has not yet announced the title of book three, which is scheduled for release in fall 2010. Collins is in fact currently writing that final Hunger Games installment; when she’s finished, she will begin work on the screenplay for the movie (Nina Jacobson’s Color Force production company will be producing the movie for Lionsgate, which has optioned the film rights).

Neither Collins nor Scholastic has announced her plans for after the trilogy ends. For now, all fans can do is re-read The Hunger Games—and look forward to September 1.

Catching Fire by Suzanne Collins. Scholastic Press, $17.99 Sept. 1 ISBN 978-0-439-02349-8