Harry who? Bella what? All the talk nowadays is about Katniss Everdeen, the courageous 16-year-old heroine of Suzanne Collins' futuristic "Hunger Games" trilogy. "I really like Katniss — how strong she is, how she fights to survive," says Natalie Noakes, a Wichita eighth-grader.
"I like how Katniss is kind of stuck between Peeta and Gale.... I can't wait to see what happens next."
Join the club, Natalie.
She and millions of other readers who have devoured "The Hunger Games" and "Catching Fire" will finally get another fix with Tuesday's release of "Mockingjay," the third and final installment of Collins' best-selling series.
And it's not just teens and tweens wondering what will happen in the dystopian nation of Panem, where a brutal reality TV show dominates mass culture. Each year a lottery selects 12- to 18-year-old representatives from each region of Panem to compete in a televised fight to the death known as the Hunger Games.
"One reason it captures readers of all ages is that you have this great page-turning plot combined with well-developed characters," said Philip Nel, an English professor and director of the children's literature program at Kansas State University.
"It's also smart. It has a pretty sharp critique of reality television, of the way war is sold to the public. There's a lot of big ideas in here as well."
Pulling for Peeta
"The Hunger Games," released in 2008, has spent more than 100 weeks on the New York Times best-seller list. The Times called it "brilliantly plotted and perfectly paced." The Wall Street Journal described it as a "stylish postmodern 'Lost' in direct collision with 'Lord of the Flies.' "
And then there's the romance.
Katniss' struggle between childhood friend Gale and star-crossed lover Peeta has been compared to the Edward-Jacob debate in Stephenie Meyer's "Twilight" saga. Not surprisingly, blogs are rife with "Team Peeta" and "Team Gale" pronouncements, and readers hope "Mockingjay" will solve the mystery.
Natalie, who has read the first two books three times each, is pulling for Peeta.
"I just think he is a better fit for Katniss," said Natalie, 13, who attends The Independent School. "I think Gale kind of lost his chance in a way."
Nel, the K-State professor, is as eager as the rest of the world to find out how the love triangle is resolved. But he's quick to downplay "Twilight" comparisons, and in the Katniss-Bella debate he is decidedly Team Katniss.
"Bella is just this sort of helpless character who doesn't have a whole lot of agency or control. She's happy to have Edward save her," Nel said.
"Katniss is quite different. She's smart. She's resourceful. She fends for herself and provides for her family and can survive in the wilderness. If young people want a heroine to admire, I'd say pick her."
Big buzz at K-State
The buzz and secrecy surrounding "Mockingjay" mirrors J.K. Rowling's blockbuster "Harry Potter" series to some extent. Local bookstores report healthy pre-orders and expect big sales this week, though none are planning Harry Potter-style midnight release parties.
Trendy teen retailer Hot Topic offers a line of T-shirts that feature the "Hunger Games" symbol — a gold bird with an arrow inscribed in a circle. The bird, a cross between a mockingbird and a mutation "jabberjay" (created by the evil Panem regime), is known as a mockingjay.
The buzz will be especially noticeable at K-State this fall, where "The Hunger Games" was selected as a common book to spark conversation among incoming freshmen. The university ordered 3,800 copies of "The Hunger Games," and each freshman got a copy during orientation this summer.
The release of "Mockingjay" coincides with the first week of classes at K-State.
"I love how the timing is all coming together," said Kevin Blake, a professor who will use "The Hunger Games" as one text in his world regional geography course.
Blake's students will discuss the geography of Panem, how Katniss reflects the region where she grew up, and the link between sense of place and personal identity, he said.
"It's just one of those well-crafted books people can delve into and really chew on," he said.
Blake, whose scholarly works include such titles as "The Colorado Fourteeners: Iconography and Nature in Place Identity," doesn't normally frequent the young-adult shelves. But "Hunger Games" hooked him.
"I started reading it one night and by 3 a.m., I was so excited," he said. A member of the freshman-book selection committee, Blake e-mailed colleagues to advocate for Collins' novel.
"First and foremost, it's a great story," he said. "But then there are so many significant themes we can draw out and discuss.... I just see it as this rich repository for potential use in the classroom."
High praise, but it's nothing Natalie and her middle-school friends don't already know. They're just hoping "Mockingjay" answers some questions and lives up to its predecessors.
"There's always action, and you don't get bored with it like you do some books," she said.
Nel, the children's lit expert, appreciates the "community of readers" that will form again this week around another beloved, long-awaited story.
"Everyone's waiting for the ship to arrive and for the story to reveal itself, so there's this shared experience," he said. "And anytime you have a shared experience based on reading, that's a good thing."