Gregor the Overlander has much in common with other books I’ve read—a bit like A Wrinkle in Time meets Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland—but it still feels like an original tale. 11 year old Gregor follows his toddler sister, nicknamed Boots, into a hole in the basement which leads to a new land (Underland, as you might be able to guess) and a quest to find his missing father. There’s destiny and prophecy, politics and war, yet through Gregor’s eyes the story feels intimate.
Gregor and Boots are part of a group of twelve questers who are prophesied to save the Underland. They join with Luxa—the teenaged queen of the Underland humans—and her cousin Henry, as well as the two huge bats Luxa and Henry are bonded to, two 4 foot tall cockroaches that think Boots is a princess, two gigantic spiders, a renegade rat, and eventually the lost father of Gregor and Boots.
The plot moves along at a good pace, as evidenced by how quickly I tore through it (devoured in less than a day)—there were a few places where I feared things would be drawn out to artificially build tension, but the author avoided that temptation. Gregor is a good guide through a world as foreign to him as it is to the reader, and most of the characters feel at least somewhat nuanced. Boots isn’t exactly a normal toddler, but she isn’t a crying plot device, either.
SPOILER ALERT: Things you might want to know before suggesting this to your kid
Among the characters are giant rats, bats, cockroaches, and spiders—I know several adults who wouldn’t be able to handle it, but I think most kids would be OK. The spiders are the hardest to identify with, and they’re a tad graphic, eating their dead.
Lots of the young characters are dealing with stuff beyond their years. After Gregor’s father goes missing, he steps up to take his place. He does the laundry, cares for his little sister, and watches over his grandmother who has mild dementia. He explicitly does not pick fights, although he also won’t back down when there’s someone he needs to stand up to, such as a bully picking on little kids.
Luxa is rebellious, but through the course of the novel she learns to appreciate her mentors who truly want to see her come into her own as a ruler.
The races of the Underland don’t get along particularly well. The cockroaches are especially looked down upon as cowardly—they’re not fighters and therefore dismissed as stupid and weak. The spiders are freaky and untrustworthy. The rats are evil.
Gregor in particular is always reevaluating his initial impressions of people and creatures. As the story progresses, most of the characters learn to look beyond these prejudices—at least when it comes to individual creatures. Because most rats actually are evil and will sooner kill you than look at you.
Death & Violence
The Underland is a brutal world. The parents of both Luxa and Henry were killed by rats before the story opens. The rats are definitely out to kill and eat Gregor and Boots (Gregor remembers that, even in the Overland, rats have been known to eat people). Many rats meet brutal and gory ends in the course of the many battles, and we learn of the deaths of many, many other creatures as well. In the end, Gregor is deeply affected when he sees the bodies of the fallen, even though he didn’t know them and in many cases would have fought against them. In the course of the battles, a lot of the characters get beaten up pretty badly—gashes that need to be sewn, a broken nose, etc.
Some of the named characters die, as well. In fact, the prophecy specifies that four of the questers have to die. The first is abrupt—one of the spiders dies just as it joins the quest. I have to admit, this felt gratuitous. I suppose it served a purpose in that it introduced the idea of spider cannibalism which certainly helps set them apart as Other to the rest of the questers, but it still came out of nowhere. The second spider dies later, but just as abruptly. Neither of the spiders is really mourned, although the things they knew and could make are missed.
One of the cockroaches valiantly sacrifices herself to save Boots in a touching and dramatic scene. After this, Gregor vows he will never kill another roach, even in the Overland. He mourns the death of the bug, and the remaining bug appreciates his tears.
At the end, it’s revealed that Henry has betrayed them all. Gregor, desperate to save the rest of the party and certain that he’s the last death prophesied, leaps off a cliff hoping the rats will follow and give the others time to escape. Henry falls off the cliff along with a bunch of rats, and Henry’s bat must decide who to save. In a crucial moment, he saves Gregor and lets Henry fall to his death, thus breaking a vow he’d made to Henry. Gregor sees the first few rats hit the ground, but looks away before Henry meets the same gory fate.
The main idea of the book is that you have to hope, which is looking ahead to a better future. When Gregor’s father was missing, he coped by not allowing himself to hope his father would return. After her parents were killed, Luxa didn’t allow herself to grieve, thus not moving beyond their deaths. Both Gregory and Luxa learn to mourn and move into hope. Hope is the path to peace—violence is the path of those who have no hope. Gregor refuses the gift of a sword because he doesn’t want to solve problems with violence until all other routes have been exhausted.
I really liked this book and recommended it to both my kids. The balance of quick pacing with substance and character development is somewhat unusual. It’s an exciting and thought provoking read, but in a way that most kids will easily pick up on their own. It would also make a great read aloud. I recommend it for most 9-12 year olds as long as they don’t have phobias about the aforementioned critters.
My 9 year old son adores this book and has already read several of the sequels. Now I need to catch up with him!
Another Son Update:
He’s now 11 and he’s reread the entire series. These are among his favorite books.
Gregor the Overlanderby Suzanne Collins
Published in 2003 by Scholastic
First in The Underland Chronicles
Read on Kindle