Saturday, March 4, 2006

Middle-Grade Fiction: The Underland Chronicles

Life has been especially hectic lately, so I haven't had much time to myself for reading. One thing we always make time for, though, is our nightly ritual of reading to our two boys. At 8 and 11 years old, Craig and Jamie are both proficient readers on their own. In Jamie's case, voracious might be a better descriptor; he devours books in big, hungry bites, one after another. Even though both boys can now read independently, my husband and I still read to them at bedtime. Our selections over the years have evolved from Dr. Seuss and Richard Scarry to lengthy chapter books, often infused with adventure and magic.

For several months now, all four of us have been thoroughly engrossed in The Underland Chronicles, a five-book series by Suzanne Collins. We have been so taken with this exciting, well-written series that I reviewed it for FamilyFun magazine (see the review in the May 2006 issue).

In the first book, Gregor the Overlander, Collins introduces us to the series' unlikely hero. Gregor is a typical 11-year old boy until the day that he literally falls into the Underland, a whole world existing underneath New York City. The Underland is populated by pale-skinned, violet-eyed humans, as well as human-sized bats, rats, and cockroaches.

I know what you're thinking...if anyone had told me I'd enjoy books filled with enormous creepy-crawlers, I'd have thought they were crazy. Besides having a fabulous imagination, Suzanne Collins is a talented writer, filling her books with suspenseful fast-moving plots, in-depth characters, and enough humor to offset the fright factor. In fact, I not only enjoy these books along with my boys, I've even come to care about many of the oversized critters.

Gregor and his two-year old sister Boots find themselves pulled into the conflicts of the Underland. Along the way, Gregor discovers he is a legendary warrior and joins an unusual team of Underlanders to fulfill a prophecy and find a clue to the mysterious disappearance of his own father.

In Book 2, Gregor and the Prophecy of the Bane, Gregor and Boots return to the Underland to help the humans head off a possible coup by the rats. Gregor has his own personal motivation for helping the Underlanders in Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods when a member of his own family is affected by a deadly plague in the Underland. In Gregor and the Marks of Secret, Gregor again fulfills his role in the Underland prophecies by helping the humans defend themselves against attacks by the rats. Through all of the action-packed books, Collins keeps us caring with her realistic portrayal of the young hero and keeps us laughing at Boots' typical toddler antics. At our house, we can't wait for bedtime to find out what happens next.
Recommended for ages 9 and up (there is some violence and death in all of the books, especially the 5th one).

(1/09 Update: The 5th and final Gregor book was published in 2008: Gregor and the Code of Claw. Our family loved the entire series, and the Gregor books remain among our favorite books of all time!)

Complete Series in a Boxed Set: