Review of the Day: Gregor the Overlander
Sorry to chooch out on you guys like this. I'm just partying too hardy this week-end to work up a review of a new book. But since The Edge of the Forest just came out, I've a piece in it that talks a bit about this book. Seems only fitting that I should have a review of it here as well. Bon appetit.
Okay. So let's make a rough estimate of children's books that discuss a world underground. "City of Ember" by Jeanne DuPrau and "The Merchant of Death" by D.J. MacHale both come to mind. But let's get even more specific. Think of books that talk about people living specifically under New York City. There's the shockingly realistic "Slake's Limbo" by Felice Holman and "Downsiders" by Neal Shusterman. So the fact of the matter is that the idea of a world underneath a world has been done time and again with varying results. But of the books I've mentioned, only "City of Ember" could match "Gregor the Overlander" in out-and-out child appeal. "Gregor" has proven to be a bona fide hit. It's just your typical quest novel with a tiny Chekhov reference thrown in for fun. This isn't "Metamorphosis" the children's book (that mixed-honor falls to "The Transmogrification of Roscoe Wizzle" by David Elliot). It's far more along the lines of a simplified "Lord of the Rings" type quest, only with some vague prophecies thrown in for kicks. It's not a bad read really, and it definitely has enough excitement to entice some of the more reluctant readers out there.
Could a summer vacation be any worse? Instead of going away to summer camp like he has every year before, Gregor (last name withheld but we'll just assume it's Samsa) is stuck in his New York apartment taking care of his two-year-old sister Boots and his dementia-addled grandmother. It looks as if this will be the dullest summer on record. That is, until the day Gregor is doing the laundry in the apartment complex's basement and Boots gets sucked into an old air duct. Gregor follows and before he knows it he and Boots are falling falling falling into an entirely new world. It's a world of giant roaches, rats, bats, and spiders. Where the people who live below have translucent skin and violet eyes. It's also a world under attack by the aforementioned rats and a prophecy says that a hero is bound to arrive to save them. So guess who they've just decided fits the description? You got it. Now "hero" Gregor has a quest with his name on it and it looks as if his father (who disappeared lo two years ago or so) is being held prisoner by the rats and is in need of some rescuing. It's up to Gregor, Boots, and a motley crew of some assorted critters to bring his daddy home.
So we've several different kinds of books all jostling for precedence here. There's the rescue-your-previously-considered-dead-father storyline, the quest storyline with a prophecy thrown in for good measure, the why-don't-we-all-just-get-along storyline, and the "Wizard of Oz" hope of just getting home in the end. Some children's book reviewers I know cannot STAND books where there's an oblique (or, as is more often the case, not so oblique) prophecy or code that the hero has to parse before the book is done. I like to point out that "The Dark Is Rising" series has plenty of prophecies. Ditto "Redwall". Then again, I have to admit that it's an exceedingly easy way to write a story. Just throw in a prophecy and voila! Now there's an actual honest-to-goodness reason your hero is doing all these crazy things the plot requires him or her to do in the first place.
One thing I liked about the book was the fact that no matter how enjoyable his adventures were or how much he liked the people he met, there is no doubt in Gregor's mind whatsoever that he never ever ever wants to come back to the Underland. Never! And since Gregor has the luck of any hapless Charlie Brownesque hero, that wish is undoubtedly thwarted to better serve the needs of the author. I was lukewarm on the book for pretty much half the story, to tell you the truth. Collins is a perfectly good writer and the book is certainly very readable, but I wasn't sure how to take the tale until I got to page 188. Ah, sweet page 188. Here we have my favorite moment in the book. I'll give you some context to the scene. Our heroes have been trapped in a tall funnel of spidersilk while they await their fate. They have a plan to escape but it requires a lot of noise. Boots, as you no doubt recall, is a toddler and toddlers are pretty darn good at one thing in particular. Noise. And lots of it. She's already been getting pretty antsy and crabby (probably needs a nap) and Gregor, who told her a moment ago that she couldn't have a cookie, realizes how he can use this little bundle of energy to the group's gain. Here's the text:
"Gregor held up the cookie. `Hey, Boots!' said Gregor. `Want a cookie?'
`No, cookie, no, cookie, no, no, no!' said Boots, way past the point of being pacified.
`Okay,' said Gregor. `Then I'll eat it.' And making sure she could see, he stuck the whole cookie in is mouth.
`Mine!' screamed Boos. `Mine! Mine! Miiiiiiiiine!' It was an eardrum-piercing shriek that rattled his brain".
I love that. That, ladies and gentlemen, could only have been written by a woman with toddlers of her own.
There are other things I liked about the book too, of course. The turncoat rat Ripred has just the right snarky attitude to cut through the previously all good or all evil characters that've come to the fore thus far. Boots, despite her single tantrum, is adorable. I mean, how can you not love a little girl named Boots? And Gregor is just the right combination of hero and low-self-esteem average joe. In the end, I'd definitely recommend "Gregor the Overlander" to those kids into fantasy already but who don't require dragons and wizards in every book they read. A fine title and a finer collection for anyone in need of a little adventure down under (literally).