By Isabelle Cortes, STEM Read Intern
We at STEM Read know that fantasy literature can be an effective vehicle for STEM education. The Underlander Chronicles by Suzanne Collins is a perfect example of this principle. When my teacher introduced my fourth-grade class to the Gregor the Overlander books, I had no clue I would love these books so much, let alone learn from them.
Gregor the Overlander, the first book in The Underlander Chronicles, is the debut novel of Hunger Games author Suzanne Collins. In five novels, she tells the story of Gregor, a boy who finds an underground world when he and his little sister fall through a laundry grate in their apartment building. The Underworld is home to many creatures; giant rats, bats, and cockroaches share terrain with the translucently pale humans of the Underland. In these underground caverns, people ride giant bats, rats have a vengeful hatred for humans, and overlanders (such as Gregor) are rare. With quests, prophecies, swords, and monarchies, the books are nothing short of spectacular.
Gregor the Overlander peaked my scientific interest without me realizing it. In fourth grade, we had the unique opportunity to dissect owl pellets, an opportunity I would have ordinarily found anticlimactic. I dissected mine to find a rat’s skull and several rat bones. My knowledge of rats from Gregor made this discovery profoundly exciting. A rat’s skull! Rats were the enemies of the Underlanders (and therefore enemies of mine) I found this discovery so awesome that I excitedly took the bones home to show my parents. Somewhat unsurprisingly, my mother was not quite as enthused by my discovery.
The Underland taught me many lessons at a young age. Not only did I retained the scientific knowledge in the books, but I also learned about humanity. My sense of adventure was piqued. I wanted to find an underground world with my little brother, discover I was the chosen one, and go on exciting adventures. But I also wanted to be the type of person Gregor was. He was inventive! When he got into a pinch, he knew how to resourcefully find a solution, whether it was using a shaken-up can of root beer as a weapon or explaining how batteries work. He was smart, a characteristic that even at a young age I knew was valuable. Gregor had a heart for other people and creatures, something I identified as priceless. As I grew alongside the books, the way I responded to the themes continued to broaden. By the third book, I learned what biological warfare was. I was shocked at the savagery of developing a plague to use against one’s enemies. In the fourth book, one animal population begins the wide-scale extermination of another animal population. The unspeakable cruelty of genocide left a tight lump in my throat for days. In the final book, the Underlanders go to war and I learned how code breaking and ciphers were used in war times.
Just recently I introduced my fourth-grade sister to the series. This summer she attended a STEM camp and was completely enraptured by the science within the books too. It makes my heart warm to see that she doesn’t think the rats, cockroaches, and mice of the Underland are gross. She is just as fascinated by the environmental science, code breaking, and problem-solving as I was, and I like asking her questions that get her to think deeper about the content. She never fails to read the books analytically and always picks up on the ethics and science on every page.
I will never forget the joy I felt when my Dad came home from the bookstore with the final book. It had this gorgeous purple cover. I stayed up all night reading it (just one more chapter? please?) I’ve still retained countless facts from the books: Did you know cockroaches are nearly indestructible? Did you know that a rat must gnaw to wear down its teeth; otherwise they will grow through its skull? Did you know that volcanoes give off a gas that is toxic before they explode? The series impacted me more than I realized at the time. After all this time, I still remember the ache in my chest when I read the very last sentence and shelved the final book. I doubt I will ever forget it. I can only hope to share the same story that helped mold me with the young learners of today.