Friday, January 2, 2009

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Back on August 4, as part of a Newbery preview post, I made an offhanded comment about the cover of The Underneath. Something about jowly dogs and kittens under a bed – that’s what it looks like, anyway – and said, “No thanks.” Then I received an email from Kathi Appelt. “Right,” I thought, “An author read my website and is contacting me about not reading her book."

It was right, and she challenged me. If she sent me a book, would I give it a try? Would I read a couple of chapters even if I disliked it intensely?

Um, yes. Yes, I would. So, properly humbled of my judge-a-book-by-its-cover-itis, I read it. And here’s what I think.

First, about the cover: It is a dog and kittens, but they aren’t under a bed. They’re under a front porch, hiding from a wicked master, a master who has already shot the dog and who’s willing to use the cats as alligator bait. This isn’t a mushy, cutesy, puppy and kitties story. (That was my inaccurate cover judgment.) This is a story of survival, of friendship and love and determination and finding good while surrounded by evil.

It’s also a story of revenge, of hatred and death and deception and betrayal.

And redemption.

Numerous stories are woven together seamlessly, and I have to admit, those are the books I love. Seeing how multiple threads come together to form one yarn fascinates me. In The Underneath it’s stories of a crippled dog and orphaned kittens, an abused boy grown into a drunken and abusive adult, a monster alligator, a grandmother snake with festering hatred and desire for revenge, a granddaughter leaving her family for true love, an ancient tree in an ancient forest, and more I’m forgetting, surely. Each story is told in short chapters, 124 total, none more than three to four pages.

All the reviews and comments that say The Underneath reads like a poem or a novel in verse are correct. Each chapter is like a small bubble that, upon being read, begins floating away. Just as it’s about to disappear from the reader’s memory, more is added to that part of the story. The bubble swells slightly and floats in the reader’s conscience a bit longer. More is added to each bubble, and each floats independently of the others. They bump and swirl together and eventually all merge into one, well-constructed novel.

The Underneath has received plenty of Newbery discussion, and rightly so. Whatever accolades it receives (in addition to being a National Book Award finalist) are deserved, and I won’t argue. It’s not, however, a book I’ll eagerly put into students’ hands. It’s heavy, heavy, heavy.

Oh, one more thing. Thanks, Ms. Appelt, for challenging my book cover judgment.


  1. I heard lots of buzz about this book at the BYU Writing and Illustrating for Young Reader's conference. I just got around to reading it a couple months ago. I agree, it is deep, but I also found it stunning. The language in this book took my breath away. I hope it wins the Newberry. The writing is superb.

  2. If it wins, I can't argue.

    Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment.

  3. In spite of the fact that this is a best-selling book being considered by the Newberry committee, this is about the worst young-adult book I've ever read. Take a few cats and a dog living under a drunk's shack in the woods, add a magical snake trapped in a jar made by her magical daughter 1,000 years ago, an alligator, endless lists of trees, and run with it for over 300 pages, and you get something close to unreadable. Don't believe the hype, The Underneath is a depressing mess.

  4. David, tell us how you really feel.

    Every once in a while a book comes along that allows no fence sitters, or at least very few of them. Either you like it or you don't. The Underneath seems to be one of them. Whirligigdaisy said "the language in this book took my breath away." You say "this is about the worst young-adult book I've ever read." Total opposites.

    That being said, I find myself one of the few riding the fence. I felt the story was extremely well written, lyrical at times, and Ms. Appelt deserves the recognition she's received. At the same time I didn't enjoy the story. Abuse, death, revenge, loss, and danger, with a touch of redemption at the end. Not my cup of tea.

    Thanks for taking the time to share your comments.


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