In the Twitter talk about our June pick, we discussed the prevalence of depressing plotlines in children’s fiction, such as death, disease, and abuse. Many books utilize these themes to give their stories empathetic pull; it’s near impossible to read about a kid dealing with mortality or exploitation without feeling invested. It’s a powerful tool to snare an audience, but it’s also emotionally exhausting as a reader. Someone suggested Gregor the Overlander as an example of youth fiction that avoids the usual angst-ridden templates and went into a different direction: kids rescuing a parent from danger. That is still a powerful storyline without tears of sadness mucking up our eyes. And that is why we chose it for the July pick.
Now that our second selection is complete, what did everyone think of Suzanne Collins’ Gregor the Overlander?
I give it a solid 6.5 out of 10. It was a story with elements of Alice in Wonderland, but set in the massive cave system beneath New York City. Gregor and his little sister Boots fall through a vent in their apartment building’s laundry room and glide into the underground cave system. They are discovered by two giant cockroaches that then barter them to the society of subterranean people, a group that colonized an area for human habitation in the 1600’s. They live in an intricate system of water retrieval, food cultivation, and diplomacy with the other species in the cave system, who by the way, can almost all speak English.
This is where the story lost traction with me. This was a world constructed with attention to factual detail about the logistics of living underground and does not lend itself to total ridiculousness. I can suspend disbelief to a certain point and go with the flow in fantasy stories, but the subterranean language ruined it for me. The underground humans are descendents of immigrants that arrived to America. They would have most likely had different origins and therefore would have shared different languages, making a uniform English tongue improbable. Even in a scenario where they all came from one country, they would have had different accents and idioms dependent on their regions. Combine that with 400 years isolated underground, and then consider that they’ve been talking to spiders, rats, cockroaches, and bats the entire time, and they would have developed a completely new language. Except they didn’t. Instead, their speech is exactly the same, save for a few unusual phrases. Like “fly high” as a wish for good luck.
Also, did you catch that bit about the talking spiders, rats, cockroaches, and bats? For what possible reason would those animals learn English? They’ve been down there for thousands of years, then a handful of humans make a land grab and everybody down there has to learn English? Apparently those caves are surprisingly hospitable.
I understand that this is a minor plot flaw and focusing on something so minor as their communication method is misguided, but I could not get over it. And every time someone said “fly high” I cringed. That is beyond cheesy.
Moving on from the preposterous linguistics, the focus on a son rescuing his father from certain depth carried an emotional wallop. This is a satisfying break from the usual heartbreak of so many other kid’s books. The ending was pretty funny, too. Gregor goes from realizing “hey, I’m going to miss these people” to “did that guy just say ‘see you soon’?” The prophecy of his return was treated with humor rather than ham-handed solemness. This was worth reading.
Our August selection, suggested by twitterer @outofmyplanet, will be Gullstruck Island (aka The Lost Conspiracy) by Frances Hardinge. Reviewers promise twists, turns, and “astonishment.” Sounds like a winner. Let’s read it and then tweet about it on Sunday, August 24th at 7 pm with hashtag #WWACSummerRead. Now go work on your tan.