Unless you’ve been living under a rock (and maybe even if you have), you’ve heard of The Hunger Games.  If not the wildly popular books, then at least the even more wildly popular movies.

I’m not here to dis Katniss, Peeta and company.  I like The Hunger Games.  It’s a great YA series–far better than Twilight, for example, or even the Divergent series.  But as good as it is, The Hunger Games series is not author Suzanne Collins’ best work.

I’ll say that again.  The Hunger Games books are not Suzanne Collins’ best work.

Meet Gregor the Overlander, the unsung hero of YA fantasy series.

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I discovered Gregor through the recommendation of a student back when I was teaching 6th grade language arts.  This was kid who had trouble connecting with any teachers at all, until I noticed him ripping through this series at lightning pace and started chatting with him about it.  Soon I was hooked, and he and I had a positive relationship developing.

Ah, the healing power of literature.

To summarize: Gregor is an 11-year-old boy living in a New York City apartment (and not a nice one) with his mom and little sisters.  His dad has been gone–run off, the neighbors say–for awhile now, and the family is struggling.  Then, Alice in Wonderland style, Gregor and his younger sister fall down an air vent and find themselves in a mysterious world underneath New York–the Underland.  It’s inhabited by giant rodents, bats and cockroaches–and a whole society of subterranean humans, who just happen to think that Gregor is the long-prophesied Warrior they’ve been waiting for.

Each of the six books in the series follows Gregor and his new friends in fulfilling a different prophecy, and the stories together form a great literary arc.  Additionally, the books contain strong messages and allegories related to war in general.  Even though Gregor is only eleven, he starts to seem a lot older pretty quickly–another part of the message of what war and battle can do to a person.

Unlike with The Hunger Games, which I suspect she was under quite a bit of pressure to finish quickly, due to the forthcoming movies and the series’ popularity, Collins was able to take her time with this series, and write and structure and finish it on her own terms.  You can tell in reading it that it’s well thought-out and planned.

The Underland Chronicles, starting with Gregor the Overlander, are a great read for middle school students who loved The Hunger Games, as well as for older teens and adults, too.  Check these books out–and see if you agree with me about the whole unsung-hero thing.