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There are few people in these United States who haven’t at least heard of Katniss Everdeen and the Hunger Games. First the trilogy became a bestseller, and the movies soon followed. So far, it is doing quite well and many of us are waiting with bated breath for the next installment. (As a side note I think they did a great job casting the movie.)

This being the case, I want to share with you how I first fell in love with Suzanne Collins and her characters. Long before The Hunger Games was a tickle in her brain, Collins wrote a little book titled Gregor the Overlander. This book was geared toward a younger audience than Games, and I read it as an eighth grade English teacher looking for books to entice reluctant and low-level readers. In addition to finding exactly what I was looking for, I also found many a late night. My nights were frittered away reading these books. There are five in the series. Although I love them all, the best is probably the first.

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Anyone who can make you cry over the death of a giant cockroach is a darn good writer. That is exactly what Collins did to me in this book. I couldn’t believe I was moved to tears over such a thing. When my mother asked what the blubbering was about, it was embarrassing to admit. She, of course, taunted me mercilessly. That changed once she read it too. She had the grace to own that she had the same reaction. Collins has a way with characters. They are interesting, complex, and addictive. She did it first in Gregor, then in Hunger Games.

Gregor is an eleven year old living in New York City. His summer responsibilities include doing the laundry and watching his two-year old sister. While in the laundry room of his building his little sister falls through a vent while playing with a ball. He dives after her, and like Alice through the looking-glass, they fall into a completely new world. So the adventure begins.

This new world is full of pale, silver-haired humans (descendents of the Earl of Sandwich), giant bats, rats, cockroaches, and many other creepy crawly things. To add to the weirdness, Gregor is apparently the fulfillment of prophecy, and a warrior. Imagine his surprise. Each book is centered around one of these prophecies that Gregor is, supposedly, the fulfillment of. While he is trying to prevent an Underland war, and not embarrass himself in front of the lovely Luxa, he is keeping Boots (baby sister) out of trouble, finding his missing dad, and trying not to tick off the murderous looking rat Ripred any more than necessary.

The reading level for this book is 5th grade. This makes it a great option for junior high, including low-level or reluctant readers. It is a fantasy, so students who prefer ‘real world’ type books won’t be interested. However, it will appeal to most since it is about a normal American kid who, on an average day, becomes extraordinary. If you have a preteen or older gradeschooler in your life who is in need of a good book series, this is the answer.  It is a great read aloud, and I would bet there is a wonderful audio version.

I know many adults who have read and enjoyed this book as well. If you love fantasy and stories about the underdog overcoming obstacles, pick this up. This is a fun and suspenseful weekend read. You will probably find yourself hooked. Don’t worry, there are five more after this one.