I know that I'm several years late to the party, but I just (finally) read The Hunger Games by Suzanne Collins, the 2008 first book in the trilogy that ended with last year's Mockingjay. I've been meaning to read it for a long time (attempting, as I do, to keep up with the most popular books in YA literature), but was inspired to put my name on the waiting list at the library when the trailers for the film starting showing up, since I like to read these books before they become movies.
Now that I've read it, I see what all the hoopla has been about. I really liked this book, much more than I expected to. The premise--teenage children pitted against each other in a fight to the death while being watched by their fellow citizens--didn't appeal to me. However, the world that Collins creates is a fascinating one, and her characters are interesting, flawed, and much less predictable than many of similar peoples thrown into a make-believe post-apocalyptic society. The story is a much more nuanced one than I, at least, imagined from that thumbnail description.
So to flesh out that thumbnail a bit--the main protagonist of the book is Katniss Everdeen, a 16-year old girl who is helping her family (which consists of her mother and her younger sister, her father having died in a work-related accident when Katniss was young) scratch out a meager existence with her illegal hunting in the wild forests outside their settled living area, known as District 12. Katniss and company live in the remains of America, which now is made up of a glittery and high-tech capitol where the chosen few live in luxury, serviced by the people who struggle in to get by in one of the 12 districts, each of which is dedicated to providing goods required by this dysfunctional nation known as Panen. As a penalty for the rebellion once demonstrated by the now-obliterated District 13, the leaders of Panen now demand that each of the 12 remaining districts send one teenage boy and one teenage girl to participate in the annual Hunger Games, in which they compete by trying to be the last one left alive as they dodge threats launched at them by both the game organizers and their fellow contestants.
So, yes...it is another grim journey through the commonly post-apocalyptic world of contemporary Young Adult literature.
However, under the circumstances, the book is not nearly as dark as you might imagine. There are touches of humor, grace, sacrifice, nobility, and caring throughout the story. And what I really liked is the way that particularly the character of Katniss, but many of the other teens as well, is fleshed out in a way that young adults can really relate to. Katniss may be in an extreme situation, but she confronts some of the same dilemmas as typical teens, especially in terms of relationships. Could the cool girl actually like her? Was she wrong when she assumed the boy didn't know she existed? Is it possible that she is attractive--even beautiful? And what is this feeling she has towards the boy in her life...could it be love? Or is it something else?
Nonetheless, I would recommend this book for teenagers, rather than the younger end of the middle school range. It is not unrelentlessly dark, but it is violent and can be disturbing, particularly towards the end. Even more, however, is that I think it if fairly sophisticated for this kind of book. It is not merely a Mad Max-like science fiction/horror book for teens; it has some insights about relationships, and quite a bit of political criticism. Several aspects of Panem could be powerful critiques of contemporary society, which lifts this book above the typical YA offerings. But I'm not sure that part of the book would be picked up by a middle schooler.
So I would recommend you hold off until your child is ready for books like Animal Farm and Fahrenheit 451. I'm not saying that this is quite in that league...at least, not until I see how the series plays out (I'm number 60 on the waiting list for the next book, Catching Fire, so undoubtedly it will be a month or so until I complete the trilogy). But it is a good read, a captivating plot, and has something to say about politics, teenagers, and humanity in general (although not necessarily in that order).