Children’s Fiction of 2008: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Posted by Sherry on 10/3/2008 in 2008, Children's Fiction, General |

It’s set in the Big Thicket and the piney woods of East Texas. It has snake-women, a bird-man, a hundred foot long alligator, kittens, trees that witness history, Caddo Indians, a villain, and an old hound dog. The writing is both lyrical and engaging. The sense of place and the atmosphere are palpable. What more could one ask for in a debut children’s novel?

I’ve been reading lots of buzz around the blogosphere for Ms. Appelt’s novel, and I must say that whatever praise anyone has written is well-deserved. Ms. Appelt has a voice that is unmistakably unique. Just listen:

“After Hawk Man and Night Song slipped away, Grandmother Moccasin wrapped herself in a cloak of hatred, wrapped it so tightly around herself that eventually that was all she knew.

Anger and hatred, wound together, have only one recourse. Poison. Poison filled Grandmother’s mouth, her cotton mouth.”

Can’t you feel the poisonous hatred of a cottonmouth snake, betrayed by the one thing she loved?

Or try this description of the love of a father for his daughter:

“When a young man becomes a father, the sky above him, the ground beneath him, the rising and setting sun, all become something new, as if he’s never seen them before as if this little daughter has turned everything all at once into a huge and wonderful Hello. When Hawk Man held his baby girl against his chest and looked into her tiny round face, he felt a love so deep he thought he might drown. It scared him a little, this new kind of love.”

The only complaint I had about the book probably isn’t terribly significant. The chapters, or scenes, were very short, two to four pages each, and the focus and point of view are constantly switching from the kittens, Puck and Sabine, to Grandmother Moccasin, to Gar Face, the hunter, to the shape-shifting couple, Night Song and Hawk Man, to their daughter, to the hound dog Ranger. It takes some fancy reading to keep up, and attention must be paid to each character and each change of venue. Some children won’t be up for it, but those who can keep up are in for a treat.

If you like animal stories, The Underneath is a fantastic animal story about a cat, two kittens, and an old hound dog who sings the blues. If you enjoy Native American legends, The Underneath draws on the stories of the Caddo Indians and the mythology of other Native American peoples and even ancient Egypt and India. If you’re a nature lover, The Underneath has nature in spades. And for the Aggies among us, Kathi Appelt occasionally teaches writing at Texas A & M University. Again, what more could one ask?

Lots of favorable reviews and not much negative:

Fuse 8: “I’ve been describing to people as (and this is true) Watership Down meets The Incredible Journey meets Holes meets The Mouse And His Child. If that doesn’t make any sense to you it is because you have never read a book quite like this.”

Jen Robinson: “I think The Underneath would make an excellent read-aloud title for later elementary school kids (despite some sad parts). It is sure to come up in award discussions later in the year. David Small’s detailed illustrations are delightful, too.”

Franki at A Year of Reading: “I am pretty sure that these characters will stay with me forever and that I will read this book again sometime soon. I think there are layers of meaning that I missed the first time through—I kind of thought about them quickly but was too invested in the plot to focus too much on the depth that Appelt has created with this story.”

The Reading Zone: “This novel is an inspiration to anyone who writes. Appelt’s debut novel is haunting, lyrical, and poetic. While the stories seem separate at first, they come together in a stunning conclusion that wraps up all loose ends.”

The Underneath has already (on the first day) been nominated for a Cybil Award in the Middle Grade Fiction category, but I’m thinking it really belongs in the Science Fiction/Fantasy category because of all the mythological and magical elements. It’s a likely candidate for both a Cybil Award and for a Newbery.


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