Though much attention this fall will likely be lavished on two hotly anticipated YA titles, Stephenie Meyer's Breaking Dawn and Christopher Paolini's Brisingr, there's always room for a breakout--a book with lesser expectations that nonetheless takes off. From all indications, a prime candidate is Suzanne Collins's The Hunger Games, first in a new trilogy from the bestselling author of the Underland Chronicles.
Although the book's 200,000-copy first printing (upped twice from an original 50,000 copies) is comparatively modest (the Meyer and Paolini titles have first printings of 3.2 and 2.5 million, respectively), the October title from Scholastic Press has been drawing early raves, particularly online, where commentary has lit up blogs and listservs. The publisher sent bound manuscripts to accounts in January, along with a letter from Scholastic Trade president Ellie Berger, and has distributed ARCs at conferences, through Book Sense and to librarians, booksellers and teenagers.
And booksellers' expectations are high. “It's as accessible as Harry Potter,” said Carol Chittenden, owner of Eight Cousins in Falmouth, Mass., and frontlist children's buyer at BookStream, who was an early fan. “It's going to be a major book.” Heather Doss, children's buyer at Bookazine, said, “It's one of those one-shot 2 a.m. ones where you blame your rep the next day for lack of sleep.” Doss and Chittenden concurred that while the book is clearly for an older audience than Collins's previous books, it could readily entice both older and younger readers.
The Underland Chronicles have performed strongly for Scholastic, with more than a million copies in print combined, but Chittenden at Bookstream predicts that The Hunger Games may outperform it. “They do have a following,” she said of the Underland books, “but not as enormous as this one will have.”
The Hunger Games is set in a dystopian North America (called Panem) in which 12 districts must each send a boy and girl between the ages of 12 and 18 to compete in televised mortal combat--reality TV at its deadliest. Although Collins's Underland books also have violent scenes, the author believes that the nature of the conflict in the new trilogy marks it for older readers. “There's no fantasy element,” Collins told PW. “The violence is not only human on human, it's kid on kid. I think that automatically moves you into an older age range.”
According to David Levithan, executive editorial director at Scholastic, “If we tried to do the same story at a middle-grade level, it would have been difficult. It was freeing, knowing it was for older readers.”
Inspirations Old and New
Collins says the idea for the brutal nation of Panem came one evening when she was channel-surfing between a reality show competition and war coverage. “I was tired, and the lines began to blur in this very unsettling way.” She also cites the Greek myth of Theseus, in which the city of Athens was forced to send 14 young men and women into the labyrinth in Crete to face the Minotaur. “Even as a kid, I could appreciate how ruthless this was,” Collins recalled. “Crete was sending a very clear message: 'Mess with us and we'll do something worse than kill you. We'll kill your children.' ”
Scholastic acquired the trilogy in a six-figure deal via agent Rosemary Stimola in 2006, and The Hunger Games quickly became an in-house favorite. “Usually an editor sort of holds the manuscript to their chest and doesn't share it until everything is absolutely perfect, but this one came in such great form,” said Levithan. “We wanted to get it to as many people as possible early on.” Collins worked with longtime editor Kate Egan, a former Scholastic editor who is now freelance, as well as Levithan and Scholastic Press editor Jennifer Rees.
Stimola has already sold foreign rights in 13 countries, and says there have been “many strong knocks at the door” for film. Scholastic Audio will produce an audiobook, for a simultaneous release in October. Scholastic is creating a dedicated Web site for the book that will include message boards, screensavers, games and more, as well as a video trailer that will appear on YouTube and other sites. Believing in the book's crossover potential, Scholastic's marketing and advertising efforts will target both YA and adult audiences as well as the science fiction market.
Collins is currently at work on the second book in the trilogy, tentatively titled The Quarter Quell, which is scheduled for fall 2009. She will make appearances at ALA, NCTE and the GLBA show, but despite the book's early attention, Collins is concentrating on the task at hand. “It's all very exciting,” she said, “but I'm blocking out as much I can.”