Gregor the Overlander: Writing War (and Other Big Themes)

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The Underland Chronicles, by Suzanne Collins (author of The Hunger Games), is an amazing story. I first read this series eight years ago and was obsessed with it for ages. I haven’t revisited it in years, though, and figured now was a good time to do so.

I can see several similarities between this series and The Hunger Games. Not like she copied herself, but there are personal touches that mark both stories. The biggest touch is the themes both stories explore. (Spoilers ahead)

Both series deal with the horrors of war, but what struck me on this reread is how focused Gregor the Overlander was with this. I don’t mean that the book was nothing more than a vessel for the theme (how boring would that be). Instead, Collins chose to write about a specific part of war, rather than war as a whole.

Gregor the Overlander (the first Underland Chronicles) shows how war tears families apart. Gregor’s dad is missing because of the hatred between the rats and the humans. Both Henry’s and Luxa’s parents are killed by rats.

Collins takes it a step further by showing the fear that comes out of a torn up family. Henry ultimately betrays the team because of his fear of the rats. He longs for power because he’s afraid, and that drove him to ally with his enemies.

Gregor the Overlander is pretty simple- straightforward plot, fairly archetypal characters, and some pretty great worldbuilding but nothing on an epic scale.  It’s not the place to tackle the whole question of war and violence and its necessity. But it is a place that can support subtle hints of a theme through backstory and characters’ motivations.

Even simple books can tackle big themes, but to do so without giving simple answers, they need to focus. And rather than face it head on like a sermon, it’s often more powerful to hint at these themes by just showing, say, a group of scared kids.

What are some other books that tackle big themes? How did they do it?

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