Fuse #8

Saturday, May 20, 2006

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).


At 1:45 PM , Blogger MotherReader said...

I also really enjoyed this book, which surprised me to no end. When we start booktalking to the elementary schools in the area, I always find I am short on "boy books." So, I go out on a active search for books boys might like that won't make me crazy. Gregor was one of those that I was sure I wasn't going to like, but I it kept my interest the whole time. And it has a GREAT booktalk hook. "If a cockroach ran right in front of me, I might jump back. But if a four foot long cockroach stood up in front of me, I would run screaming from this room. So you can imagine how Gregor felt when..."

At 6:28 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I like this book far more than you do. I think the universe is very well-constructed, and the morality issues are both complex and reflective (especially as the series progresses) of our current adult world. Also, when I first read it I started crying near the end because I was afraid this was going to be my only taste of the Underland. (A couple of weeks ago, I cried at the end of Book 4 partly because of what's going on in the plot and partly because I have to wait for Book 5 to be published.)

But, the reason I'm writing a comment is to tell you that last summer I read Gregor aloud to approximately 17 teenagers (mathematically gifted teenagers). We did it one chapter per night, and they were pretty much riveted the whole time. These are folks who ordinarily run around like crazies at 10:30 pm, having just sat for three hours solving problems. Every night they demanded another chapter (and sometimes more, if they could get me to keep going), sat quietly, and in fact shushed anyone else nearby.

So it's not just me, really.

At 4:17 AM , Blogger Jackie Parker said...

I liked it, but I haven't yet felt the need to read the rest of the series.

At 9:23 AM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

Speaking of The Edge of the Forest, Fuse, I enjoyed your piece on kids' picks. Nice work!

At 11:02 AM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

Thank you, Susan. To answer some of the other comments, I did like the book. Honestly! But as Jac has said, I haven't felt much of an inclination to read any of the others. My homeschooler bookgroup, on the other hand, read the first and immediately ran hell for leather to my bookshelves for the sequels. And as booktalks go (I'm AWWWFUL at booktalks, by the way) this one is indeed a godsend. Just the same, Mother Reader, I'm stealing your opening.

At 6:25 PM , Blogger Gail Gauthier said...

I loved this book and can't wait to find the fourth one. I adore Ripred.

I heard Suzanne Collins speak last fall. She considers the Gregor books war stories. Not because she has some big moral statement she wants to make about war, but because she was a military kid, and her father was into military history. She was also influenced by Alice in Wonderland. Instead of being in a land under the English countryside, Gregor is in a land under New York City. I believe Collins was living there when she started the books.

At 11:05 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

My son and I wrestled each other over the 4th book and finished it at about the same time. These have been a lot of fun from the beginning. We were both a little frustrated that the most recent volume ended without even an attempt at tying up loose ends. On the other hand, I think the 5th book will be worth the wait.

At 11:21 PM , Blogger fusenumber8 said...

You're not the first person I've heard complain about that, Paul. Recently some librarians and I were discussing the latest book and its relative merits. We came to the conclusion that the series is nice, but it's beginning to go into the inevitable series slump that so many children's books experience after a time. Has anyone read the latest and can prove this to be a damn dirty lie?

At 6:25 PM , Anonymous Anonymous said...

I absolutely loved the series, I have only read up to book three and now must type up a project about the series thus far. But I can't wait to read the fourth book and once the fifth book comes out, oh, I can't wait.


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