of the Center for Children's Books:
Each month we offer a focus on a particular author or artist. Sometimes we use this space to discuss a rising new talent or an established star, but we also like to celebrate those who now live on only in the rich legacy of their books. See the archive for focus pieces from previous months.
An underground world deep under New York City, populated with giant cockroaches, bats, and rats and pale-skinned, violet-eyed humans, might have seemed like a bit of a stretch for a serious novelist. In the hands of veteran television writer and new children's author Suzanne Collins, however, that milieu and the protagonist who takes us there become enthrallingly real.
In Gregor the Overlander (BCCB 1/04), the first of the Underland Chronicles, an unexceptional eleven-year-old, Gregor, and his two-year-old sister, Boots, fall through a grate in the laundry room of his family's New York City apartment building. At first simply eager to escape that strange land, Gregor discovers that his missing father is being held captive by the rats, who are at war with the humans who have taken him and Boots in. Worse yet, Gregor's coming to the Underland has been foretold anciently, and soon creatures of many species look to him as the warrior of prophecy. The second book, Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane (BCCB 10/04), details Gregor and Boots's return to the Underland to join an assassination party, following the instructions given in yet another antique prediction. Also divination-driven, the third book in the projected quintet, Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods (BCCB 10/05), requires the Overlander duo to work with former enemies and old friends to find the cure to a devastating plague that threatens to wipe out all warm-blooded denizens of the Underland.
Across all three books, the level of verisimilitude is high, the quality of the prose excellent. Natural verbal banter and practical, pedestrian details ground each story in easily accessible realism, and Gregor's and Boots's emotional and physical growth is believably tied to their ages and experiences. Boots, innocent and eager to love, affords readers many a light-hearted moment in all this epic adventuring and provides her brother with many a useful accidental insight. Gregor's role as reluctant hero doesn't spoil him for everyday life—rather, his down-to-earth outlook and all-too-clear understanding of his own limitations heavily influence his participation in the herculean exploits that await him on each of his underground adventures. In fact, it is Gregor's very normalcy that makes him in truth the Overlander foreseen of old; as a kind-hearted, well-meaning, fallible outsider, Gregor is willing to make generous and sometimes foolhardy (but ultimately wise) decisions that no one else in the Underland dares or even conceives of.
Transitioning from scriptwriting to novel writing offers its own hurdles, but Collins has so far successfully cleared them all. Sound characterization, deft plotting, and skillful narration typify her Underland Chronicles and create within them a deeply likeable, truly admirable, refreshingly ordinary hero.
—Timnah Card, reviewer
Gregor the Overlander. Scholastic, 2003. (BCCB 1/04)
Gregor and the Prophecy of Bane. Scholastic, 2004. (BCCB 10/04)
Gregor and the Curse of the Warmbloods. Scholastic, 2005. (BCCB 10/05)