I discovered this series in 2008 and binge-read all five books as fast as I could download them to my (then) brand new Kindle. I loved the alliance between animals and humans. The curiosity of children as they explored an unknown subterranean land and interacted with unfamiliar creatures was intriguing. And the themes of friendship, courage and an unusual prophesy had me hooked.
Susanne Collins wrote the Underland Chronicles prior to the Hunger Games series. Her father was a Vietnam War veteran who was adamant that war was not the answer to conflict, and she wanted her writing to encourage children to consider alternative solutions. That said, with fair warning she does choose to use battle to make this point in her series,
The story begins with an 11-year-old boy falling down the dryer vent in his New York City apartment with his 2-year-old sister. He literally stumbles into a prophecy of which his role is critical, and also discovers why and how his father mysteriously disappeared two years prior.
We started reading Book One in July 2021 and finished the series in December 2021.
There are so many things about this book I want to share. First, it is absolutely action packed. Each chapter is an exciting piece of the larger picture. We would read for hours at a time some days, because we just couldn’t put the book down.
Secondly, the world building is incredible. When we closed our eyes, we could see the majestic city of Regalia with its massive stone walls and mysterious waterways. Without any natural light underground, their solutions to illumination were fascinating, as was the relationship between the humans and the creatures they lived with.
Collins' interpretation of the personalities and characteristics of uncommon subterranean creatures is insightful and even hilarious at times. The communication of the cockroaches and fireflies had us in stitches, and the empathy we felt for the mice was profound. Not to mention, the alliance between humans and bats was pivotal to understanding the diverse interactions between humans and creatures in the entire story.
Some themes may be a bit much for very young readers.
If your young listeners or readers have a fear of scorpions, bats, cockroaches or rats, best to pre-read it to test out if it is too scary for them. As the book series goes on, there are also some violent and bloody battles and experiences, even the death of some significant creatures and characters. Our girls were 8 and 10 when we started this series and while they didn’t like some of the situations and outcomes, they were old enough to understand their purpose.
I’m also a proponent of using elements in a story that test the edges of my girl’s comfort zones through meaningful discussions. Some themes we discussed were death, suffering and intentional harm.
Timely themes for the world in 2021
It’s no secret that our world is currently riddled with both complexity and beauty. Book 3, “The Curse of the Warmbloods” explores the topic of a mysterious virus that plagues the Underworld. Both division and havoc ensue while the Underlanders determine the appropriate course of action. It was perhaps our slowest read of our six books, as we kept finding parallels or examples in our outer world to discuss. I felt this book was pivotal in providing our girls with a solid innerstanding of how they feel about what’s going on globally.
Book 6, “The Marks of Secret” did have a few passages I skipped. There is a particularly gruesome scene when we discover the fate of the “nibblers” (the mice) at the hands of the “gnawers” (the rats). Truthfully, due to the sensitivity of our youngest, I skipped a few sentences to save her heart from breaking and her imagination from running wild. I did keep the overall storyline intact.
Throughout the entire series, as the main character Gregor experiences each prophecy, he is faced with making the choice between responding with violence or choosing a more peaceful solution. I often asked the girls “would you have responded differently?” I found this question nurtured their critical thinking skills and helped them identify the relevant factors they would use when faced with making a big decision.
Shifting values shifted my perspective on this book.
When I first read the Underland Chronicles I was swept away by the imaginative story and the fascinating world. Fifteen years later, my perspective has changed somewhat. I whole-heartedly believe that there is an overabundance of war, violence and conflict in stories that both desensitize and normalize them in young readers. What made this story an exception in our read aloud repertoire, was having the ability to create the space for it in our homeschool routines. It was intentionally selected to serve as a catalyst for discussion based upon my prior knowledge of the storylines and parallels to our current point of view on world events.
That said, we will not be exploring another book with similar themes anytime soon.
Recommended for mature kids ages 8 and up.
With complex storylines, multiple characters and some intense themes, this series is most definitely suited for older kids. What makes it so fascinating as a read aloud is the many different opportunities for discussion and truly deep discussion. In our house, the dialog around the book is often what makes a read aloud go from good to great, and in all aspects, this read aloud was GREAT.
Have you read “Gregor the Overlander and the Underland Chronicles” by Suzanne Collins?
Let me know what you think in the comments!