Collins, S. (2004). Gregor the Overlander. New York: Scholastic.
Appetizer: 11-year-old Gregor is facing a hot, boring summer in New York City, watching his grandma and one of his little sisters, Boots. His mom works all day and his dad had mysteriously disappeared several years ago.
But, when Boots falls into a large open duct along the wall behind the dryer in the basement laundry room of their apartment building, Gregor has no choice but to follow her. The siblings fall into a mysterious underland where cockroaches, bats and rats are giant, the people have never seen the sun and where, Gregor quickly learns, it's much easier to arrive than to escape. Looks like his summer has taken a turn for the interesting.
Okay, so I'm in love with The Hunger Games trilogy that Collins wrote after the Underland Chronicles. And since I'd heard good things about it, I figured it was my duty to pick up this series as well. But while by the same author, who still writes in clear and action-packed prose--I mean, can the woman end a chapter without there being some kind of plot twist/moment of emotional "ooh"?--The Underland Chronicles will really appeal to middle grade boys. I'm guessing the giant cockroaches, spiders and rats will entertain. And the fact that Collins includes real behavioral and biological features when she describes the animals will amuse even more.
I particularly like Gregor the Overlander because quite a few of the initial interactions and misunderstandings revolve around cultural misunderstandings. This can help prepare students or open up discussion about experiencing another culture.
I also like that the book explores what it is to be a hero/warrior and the sense of determinism that can arise when characters must worry about fulfilling a prophecy. Between the prophecy, quests, and links between the giant bats and their human riders, the book feels like it is the underground baby of The Lord of the Rings series and Avatar. Seriously! (Never mind that Gregor came out long before Avatar. It's still its baby. Don't ask me about the math!).
I do have one small complaint though. I didn't like that the protagonist's name was Gregor and one of the antagonists was named King Gorger. Gregor. Gorger. Gregor. Gorger. Knowing Collins, this may have been intentional. But since I tend to focus on the first and last letters as I read names, there were a few moments of confusion.
Also, as a warning, there are multiple character deaths in the book. As a rule, the characters who die aren't the ones the reader is expected to love the most, but they're also not nameless, faceless, motionless rocks in the background either. (But how unexpected would that be?! If a rock died?! Those kids don't even breathe! Nobody would see it coming!)
The next book in the series is Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane. While it won't be able to fight its way to the top of my book pile, it'll still make the pile, which is saying something.
"Gregor had pressed his forehead against the screen for so long, he could feel a pattern of tiny checks above his eyebrows. he ran his fingers over the bumps and resisted the impulse to let out a primal caveman scream" (p. 1).
"As he reached the far wall, a strange scene confronted him.
The metal grate to an old air duct was wide open, secured by two rusty hinges at the top. Boots was squinting into the opening, about two feet by two feet, which led into the wall of the building. From where he stood, Gregor could see nothing but blackness. Then a wisp of...what was it? Steam? Smoke? It didn't really look like either Some strange vapor drifted out of the hole and curled around Boots. She held out her arms curiously and leaned forward.
"No!" yelled Gregor as he lunged for her, but Boots's tiny frame seemed to be sucked into the air duct. Without thinking, Gregor thrust his head and shoulders into the hole. The metal grate smacked into his back. The next thing he knew, he was falling down, down, down into empty space" (p. 13).
"All right, okay, I'm talking to a giant cockroach," thought Gregor. "Be cool, be nice, answer the bug. He wants to know 'Smells what so good, smells what?' So, tell him." Gregor forced himself to take a deep sniff and then regretted it. Only one thing smelled like that.
"I poop!" said Boots, as if on cue. "I poop, Ge-go!"
"My sister needs a clean diaper," said Gregor, somehow feeling embarrassed." (pp. 18-19).
"It is simple to fall down, but the going up requires much giving."
"What do you mean?" asked Gregor, his throat tightening.
"He means you cannot go home," said Luxa flatly. "You must stay with us in the Underland."
"Uh, no! No, thank you!" said Gregor. "I mean, you're all great, but I've got stuff to do...upstairs!" he said. "Thanks again! Nice meeting you! Come on, Boots!" (p. 36).
"He'd seen movies. He'd read books. He didn't in any way resemble any warrior. First of all, they were grown up and they usually had a lot of special weaponry. Gregor was eleven and, unless you counted a two-year-old sister as special weaponry, he'd come empty-handed" (pp. 111-112).
"Gregor succeeded in thinking of himself as a warrior. A bold, brave, powerful warrior that the Underlanders would tell stories about for centuries. He could almost see himself leading a squadron of bats into battle, stunning the rats, saving the Underland from--
"Ge-go, I pee!" Announced Boots.
And there he stood, a boy in a goofy hard hat with a beat-up flashlight and a bunch of batteries he hadn't even tested to see if they still had juice.
The mighty warrior excused himself and changed a diaper" (pp. 137-138).
Tasty Rating: !!!