I am the mom of an eight-year-old, so I do keep up with the kids’ book market, but I chose these books because they were written by the Queen of Pacing, Suzanne Collins, author of the huge hit, The Hunger Games trilogy. (Which I loved, despite the disappointment of Mockingjay, but that’s another blog post.) When I found that she’d written five midgrade novels, I got them via eMusic. (not an affiliate link, I do love eMusic for their catalog and their non-DRM files.)
Here is where I’m firmly believing that tropes and clichés don’t kill stories; bad writing kills stories. If I told you the basic plot- boy in our world falls into mysterious magical underground kingdom were he’s prophesied to save them all, you’d snort and say, “oh, that’s original.” But so what? Original or not, Collins makes it awesome.
Gregor is eleven, and a pretty responsible kid, since his grandmother has dementia and his mom takes care of him, his seven year old sister Lizzie, and his two year old sister Boots. His dad disappeared over two years ago, and he’s had to take on a lot of the childcare (and elder care) since his mom works to support the five of them. He falls into the Underland, where they immediately treat him like a dirty stranger (they keep insisting he bathe) and he inadvertently offends them frequently. Then we find out about the prophesy, and the giant rats, and a quest, and it’s a whole thing.
What makes Collins’ work shine is, of course, her pacing, which keeps me sitting in the car long after I’ve gotten home to get to the end of a chapter. But her characters are also awesome. Gregor should show a little more fear as an eleven year old- he admits to a fear of heights, but we never see this fear manifest- but he’s a solid kid who’s smart but impulsive. The surprise is how well his two year old sister fits into the story. Boots is charming and fun and has a weird ability to tell the giant cockroaches (“crawlers” is the polite term) apart, something the Underlanders can’t even do. When she has a tantrum in the first book, it’s perfectly suited to the situation, and even comes in handy as they’re captured by some creatures who don’t like loud noises.
Sometimes it seems a little too easy traveling with a two year old (I seem to remember my two year old not being so ready to accept a brand new schedule, never mind constant adventure), and the descriptions in the underland sometimes seem too clear to allow for the amount of light they had available, but those are minor complaints to an otherwise fun read.
Prophesies, other lands, and heroic outsiders are common tropes in fantasy, but give them to a talented writer, and you will still have a book you can’t put down. I’ve finished the first two, Gregor the Overlander and The Prophesy of Bane, and I’m eager to get the other three. Highly recommended for any mid-grade reader (or adult) who loves adventure.
(Since this is an audio podcast, I should mention the audiobook is a great listen, the narrator giving life to the characters. The consistency isn’t the same through the books, though, which is irritating. A major rat character sounds bored and sardonic in book 1 and scratchy and mean in book 2….)