Wednesday, March 2, 2011

The Underland Chronicles (5 Book Series)

Titles: Gregor the Overlander; Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane; Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods; Gregor and the Marks of Secret; Gregor and the Code of Claw

Author: Suzanne Collins

Rating: ** (2 stars out of 3 possible, "B")

Audience: Middle-schoolers, ages 11 and up

After enjoying Collins' Hunger Games young adult trilogy, reading this middle-schoolers' series was the next natural step.

Gregor the Overlander was Collins' first published book, and a solid accomplishment. Collins creates a unique setting and a compelling plot line, then mixes in some humor and relational characters to explore themes of family, sacrifice, loyalty, just war and civil rights. Quite a statement!

Gregor is an 11-year old boy in New York City babysitting his little sister one summer. They unexpectedly tumble down into The Underland, a vast land of several kingdoms below the earth. Here Gregor meets unique humans who align themselves with giant bats ("flyers") in order to keep giant rats ("gnawers") at bay. Lower caste inhabitants include giant bugs ("crawlers") and mice ("nibblers") while giant spiders ("spinners") tend to manage their own political affairs. Proper allegiances must be formed among all these species in order to prevent the loss of Underland's fragile peace. Gregor and his baby sister are the lynchpins to hold unstable alliances together. Along the way they hope to solve their own family mystery.

If this sounds dark or bizarre, don't worry. Baby sister provides plenty of light-hearted moments of humor and innocent play. Language is clean and while Gregor speaks like a casual 11-year old boy, the ancient human race uses a more formal dialect with some vocabulary challenges for the reader. There are a few fights or battles, but peace and diplomacy are highly valued commodities. Wisdom and maturity win out over youthful impulse.

Naturally, as you progress through the series, Collins ups the ante. In book four, Gregor and the Marks of Secret, she explores a Holocaust theme when poisonous volcanic gas kills nibblers deceived and trapped by an unstable and evil gnawer. Thus, these books are appropriate for middle-schoolers who are ready for discussions about serious topics such as the Holocaust, just war philosophy, civil rights.

My other caveat concerns the tendency in "animal" books for animal characters to embody souls or spirits of their own. It's valuable to talk with children about what's real in such books (ideas of equality, kindness, justice) vs. what's fiction (giant cockroaches saving our lives). One can almost sense a Buddhist philosophy in such writings. For instance, Gregor appreciates the giant cockroaches so much he promises himself never to kill another roach in the Overland (New York City)! I think a simple reality check with your child is reasonable compromise.

It's encouraging to find a contemporary author dealing with intelligent themes and historical references. Suzanne Collins has given older kids a smart read with this series.

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