I have a weak spot in my heart for middle-grade literature. I love how simple the writing is, how realistic the characters are for their ages, and what wonderful messages they carry. Unfortunately, I find that most middle-grade literature I read is lacking. Part of that, I’m sure, the lack of middle-grade aged children in my life. But, honestly, it’s harder to find solid middle grader literature than children’s, young adult, or adult. And this makes me sad. It is also why I want to sing the wonderful praises of Gregor the Overlander. Suzanne Collins’ debut novel (yes, The Hunger Games Suzanne Collins) is a wonderful fantasy novel which met all the hallmarks of great middle-grade literature.
Gregor, 11-years-old, is the oldest of three children. When his father mysteriously vanished two years ago, Gregor knew he had to step up and help out with the family once he started to notice his mother’s struggles. This summer, he is skipping camp to stay home and babysit his two-year-old sister Margaret, whom everyone calls Boots. One day, while doing laundry, Gregor and Boots discover a missing grate and fall down, down, down into a strange new world called the Underland. And so begins a quest built on prophesy where Gregor and Boots must journey with Underlander humans, rats, spiders, bats, and roaches to save their missing father.
“Hope,” said Vikus. “There are times it will be very hard to find. Times when it will be much easier to choose hate instead. But if you want to find peace, you must first be able to hope it is possible.”
Gregor and Boots might by some of my favorite characters in all middle-grade literature. They have a wonderful relationship. Gregor is responsible for Boots and he takes this seriously throughout the book. He is a fabulous older brother. He respects and understands Boots, even if he does get annoyed with her at times. Gregor isn’t perfect. He’s smart, logical, and yet still gets annoyed and frustrated with people. He even whines once in a while. But that just makes him more realistic.
And Boots? Boots is my favorite character by far. She’s perfect. She’s lovable, friendly, unassuming, caring, and respectful. How often have you read novels with two-year-old characters? Have they ever really felt like two-year-olds? Probably not. Boot’s speech and mannerisms are on POINT. It’s obvious Collins knows what she’s doing here. A huge shout out to narrator Paul Boehmer for his interpretation of Boots. He nailed it.
The emotional journey Gregor experiences, and most of his development hinges on his relationship with Boots throughout this strange Wonderland-esque experience. The pair makes this novel.
I also love the diversity of the animals joining this quest. Surprisingly to me, my favorite species turned out to be our cockroach friends! I always have a soft spot in my heart for the underdog. If I was disappointed in anything it was that we didn’t get to better know the bat or spider characters. There was a lot of opportunity for character development left on the table here. But, well, this book *is* already 326 pages…
And then there was Tick. Brave little Tick, who had flown into the faces of an army of rats to save his baby sister. Tick – who never spoke much. Tick – who shred her food. Tick – who was, after all, just a roach. Just a roach who had given al lthe time she had left so that Boots could have more.
Other than the characters and their relationships, it might feel like Gregor the Overlander is a bit stereotypical. Prophesy. Chosen one. Rescuing the lost father. While the adventure is formulaic, the writing is not. Collins takes the traditional trials and tribulations turn into good triumphing over evil and twists it on its head a bit. There are subtle shifts in the text which respect the intelligence of the reader. Instead of spelling everything out, gray moments are presented where the reader can apply their own convictions of what is right and wrong. Her writing never becomes preachy or moralistic. Instead, tolerance, friendship, responsibility, loyalty, honesty, and what it means to both grow-up and respect your own boundaries are all explored quietly.
As an adult reading Gregor the Overlander I can see parallels to modern politics and international history. I wonder if the middle graders reading these books ever catch those references? Genuine violence and death face our “questors” as they progress through these pages. Collins’ setting underground is already dark, but these aspects being brought to the fore reinforces this. With all the prejudice and judgments the different species show to each other it’s easy to see there is a lot to unpack between the lines. I would have loved to read this in school as a child.
I tired of constant fear, so I made a decision. Every day when I wake I tell myself that it will be my last. If you are not trying to hold on to time, you are not so afraid of losing it.
Gregor the Overlander is a gripping introduction to Collins’ Underland series. This book is inventive and treats the reader with respect. Honestly, the things I struggled with are barely worth mentioning. I would certainly recommend this novel (and potentially the whole series!) to any young reader who loves adventures stories; boys and girls alike. I look forward to continuing the series!
What do you think?
- Have you read Gregor the Overlander? What are your thoughts on this book? The series as a whole?
- What are your favorite middle-grade novels?
- Who are your favorite sibling sets in children’s literature? Why?
- How do you feel about anthropomorphic characters?