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Middle school students around St. Mary’s County rushed to finish reading their copies of the novel “The Hunger Games” before seeing the blockbuster movie, which premiered last week.

Esperanza Middle School teachers figured that the book would be a hit with their students but never imagined the impact it would have, Principal Jill Mills said last week after the entire eighth-grade class returned Friday from a special early morning screening of the movie at a theater in Lexington Park. English and reading teachers said that the book ignited in their students a desire to read, a spark they never had seen in years of teaching.

Writer Suzanne Collins sets the science fiction book in a society known as Panem, which rose in a worn-torn North America and is divided into districts. In the book, which was published in 2008, young people from the districts are chosen through an annual lottery to fight to the death in a televised game show in a central arena.

The book explores the characters and class divisions in the fantasized society.

“It’s all about rebellion and teenage angst and working together as a team,” Mills said. “It goes across all ethnicities and gender and everyone liked it.”

The principal said that the book fits in with middle school curriculum and that it seems to be appealing to most students because of its diversity of characters.

“It’s a good book,” eighth-grade reading and language arts teacher Megan Dinopoulos said. “We had some kids come up to us and say they never really read a book before.”

Alexa Steingold, 14, said she couldn’t put the book down once she started reading it, which was a new phenomenon for her. “I have never read a chapter book without being forced to,” the eighth-grader said.

But with “The Hunger Games,” she said, “Every single page of the book gave me a perfect image of what’s going on. And when I saw the movie, it was just like that and it blew my mind.”

Steingold and some of the other students chatted about the book and movie Friday after arriving back at school. Many agreed that the book was better because it was more descriptive. “It was a movie in my head,” she said.

Ronan Delaney said the movie, while great, left out a few key elements. “The cornucopia wasn’t golden,” he said. Still, he said he liked the humor in the movie and recommended seeing it.

Mjia San Nicolas, 14, said she read the entire “Hunger Games” trilogy (the other two volumes are “Catching Fire” and “Mockingjay”) during three days this past summer, so when all of her friends and classmates were assigned to read it, she liked leaking little spoilers. “The movie was absolutely amazing,” she said.

Students praised the book’s excellent plot and writing and the mix of both fight scenes and romance.

“We’ve picked a lot of more mature books [recently] to treat them like young adults, and they respond to that,” Dinopoulos said.

Dinopoulos and her three colleagues during the winter school break planned out a curriculum centered on “The Hunger Games” novel. Students had to read the book, but they also broke into different groups, which corresponded with the districts in the trilogy.

Each district has a theme, such as agriculture, technology or fishing, she said. Students had to design a costume representing their district and students voted for a quarter per vote on the best as part of the fundraiser.

They also held a bake sale, which had items related to their district. These and other small fundraisers helped pay for copies of the books and helped offset the movie ticket expenses for the nearly 300 eighth-graders.

“It really hooked them,” teacher Katie McCarthy said.

Other middle school students and teachers have explored the book this year, too.

Selena Seibt, a seventh-grade reading/language arts teacher at Spring Ridge Middle, said her students voted to have “The Hunger Games” as a teacher-read book. Seibt read the book to the class and they discussed it.

About 30 students from her classes met at the movie theater in Lexington Park after school on its opening day Friday to watch the film.

Seibt said she has designed a science fiction unit for her classes because of the hype surrounding the book series and movie.

Teacher Kayla Verbic said her honors English class at Margaret Brent Middle School has made a class collage of the characters and their traits and many met up this weekend at the local theater to watch the movie together. “I even have a few that have finished the whole trilogy because they just couldn’t stop reading,” she said in an email.

jyeatman@somdnews.com