Poor Peeta! His masculinity sure is taking a drubbing today. OK, so it's pretty doofy that he signals his psychic recovery from torture at the hands of Snow's minions by … decorating a really pretty cake. Even though I was Team Peeta all the way (if just because choosing Gale would have moved Katniss' narrative backward) it was hard not to think, "Hmm. Bombs are cooler than baked goods." On the other hand, two of my best friends are currently planning their weddings, and one thing I have learned from the experience is that one should never underestimate the power of expertly frosted desserts.
In Peeta's defense, let's not forget that his ability to wield a pastry tube isn't the only thing he's got going for him: He's also a naturally gifted public speaker. Katniss becomes a media star purely by means of an idiot-savant-like grace—a pretty common fantasy in our celebrity-obsessed culture. (I also detected a whiff of parental wishful thinking here: "Just be yourself, honey, and everyone will love you!" Which, as all teenagers know, is a total crock.) Peeta, on the other hand, actually seems to understand what viewers want and how to manipulate those desires. I wish he hadn't gone all crazy and catatonic in Mockingjay, because I would have loved to have seen him bring his talents to this new political stage. Would he, like Gale, have grown into someone hard and morally complicated?
While we're on the topic of the boys of the Hunger Games, I feel compelled to note how bummed I was when Finnick died. I'm not entirely sure what he added to the mix—he seemed to exist mostly to remind us that pretty people aren't always mean and shallow—but he was one of the few newish characters who had a little glimmer to him. Emily, I think I liked Haymitch more than you did, but I agree that most of the characters were flat, flat, flat. I can barely remember anyone introduced after Book 1. (I was especially disappointed by President Coin, who I thought had potential to become an interestingly three-dimensional leader in the mold of Battlestar Galactica's Laura Roslin.)
Side rant: When Finnick spills all the nasty secrets he learned during his tenure as a sex slave (!) in the Capitol, how come we don't get to hear any of those secrets? It's not simple prurience on my part—I felt the same readerly frustration during the Victory Tour section of Catching Fire, when we were treated to the literary equivalent of a shoddy travel montage, with no description of the other Districts. I don't know if Collins skipped all the dirty details on the Capitol's "strange sexual appetites" because she thought they would be inappropriate (although if that's the case, why mention them in the first place?) or because she just couldn't be bothered to develop the initial idea. But either way, the scene struck me as an annoying, lazy tease. Ah well—more fodder for the fan-fiction brigade.
Finally, Emily, you asked what, "other than exhilarating escapist fun," we want kids to take away from the series. I agree with David that the novels are chock-full of thought-provoking ideas, and while Brave New World and 1984 (and Battle Royale, and Series 7, and Wag the Dog, and Lord of the Flies) might have explored those ideas before—sometimes more satisfyingly—I'm not sure that really matters. Much of it will be new to The Hunger Games' intended audience, and as such, is likely to blow their minds, sparking countless instances of whatever the middle-school equivalent of dorm-room bull sessions might be.
This book made me want to be an English teacher again, if just because I could imagine all kinds of great classroom pairings. For younger kids, I would read The Hunger Games alongside Greek myths like Theseus and the Minotaur, which Collins has called a "significant influence" on her novels. (Incidentally, Emily, I think you're right on with the Katniss-as-Artemis comparison. And the notion that Gale might have unknowingly caused Prim's death seems very "Greek tragic" to me, as well.) For high school students, I might present the trilogy alongside Shakespeare's Henry IV plays—Katniss' growing awareness of the power of her public image provides a nice counterpoint to Prince Hal's similar discovery. And Haymitch is awfully Falstaffian, no? Or maybe the gory Titus Andronicus would be a better match. … And so on and so on. In this sense, the fact that Collins' books echo countless other narratives is a strength, not a weakness. If The Hunger Games are, indeed, book crack, they can also be gateway drugs.