Summer is not starting out well for eleven-year-old Gregor. Instead of getting to go to camp, like his seven-year-old sister, he is stuck in roasting hot New York City babysitting his two-year-old sister, Boots, while also keeping an eye on his grandmother, who his some issues with her memory. His mother has to work full time in order to support them, and since his father disappeared two years earlier, life has been fairly rough on all of them. It really takes its toll on Gregor, though, who is clearly having to grow up quickly and assume more responsibilities than a typical eleven-year-old American boy.
One day Gregor takes Boots with him down to the laundry room in the basement of the building. Boots is a sunny child, and she entertains herself while Gregor sorts clothes and loads the machine. When he looks up and suddenly his sister is nowhere in sight, Gregor panics, searching all over the laundry room for her. Finally he sees her disappearing through a grate in the wall. He runs to her and grabs onto her legs to pull her out, but instead finds himself being sucked into the air chute himself. Soon he and Boots are falling in a slow, drifting sort of way reminiscent of Alice down the rabbit hole (although here, the slowness is explained by strange air currents).
When they reach the bottom they find themselves in a bizarre, frightening world of enormous rats, cockroaches and bats. They meet people who live in a beautiful hidden city, who speak in an odd but pleasant way, and who lead lives that Gregor can barely begin to comprehend. Before long Gregor is caught up in a quest that had been prophesied generations earlier, a quest that is harrowing, dangerous - in fact, it's downright deadly.
I have been hearing good things about this series from many of the young patrons of my library, and at first I resisted - do I really need another series to get caught up in? When I saw the audiobook, I decided that would be a good way to check it out, and I was very glad I did. Not only is it a riveting adventure tale, but it involves well-developed characters whom I came to truly care about. I loved Gregor's relationship with little Boots - while at times he grew impatient with her (what eleven-year-old wouldn't?), their interactions were so sweet and real, and Boots, a child with very little vocabulary, effortlessly worms her way into the hearts of everyone around her, including this reader.
I enjoyed the dynamics of the characters' relationships, particularly those on the quest, who are of different species and backgrounds. It was an effective portrayal of people with a common goal trying to work together, even though under normal circumstances they would not spend much time together at all. This would be a great choice for a children's book club or a group classroom read, because there are many fascinating discussion points. I very much enjoyed Paul Boehmer's excellent narration; he truly brought the story to life with his expressive storytelling style.
For those of you who are reluctant to start a new series: it appears this one concludes with book five. I will doubtless be disappointed when that happens, but for now, it feels good to know the this series is not an open-ended commitment! While this first volume has a very definite and satisfying conclusion, there is certainly room for the story to continue. I look forward to following the further adventures of Gregor (and, I hope, Boots) in the Underland.
Books in the Underland Chronicles:
1. Gregor the Overlander
2. Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane
3. Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods
4. Gregor and the Marks of Secret
5. Gregor and the Code of Claw
Gregor the Overlander (#1 in The Underland Chronicles) by Suzanne Collins; read by Paul Boehmer (Listening Library, 2005)
Also reviewed at:
Julie Sternberg: "You'll forget the roaches are roaches. You'll even grow to like them. Really."
Novel Reads: "Gregor the Overlander is one fantastic thrill ride for readers of any age."