The Underneath by Kathi Appelt is the story of an abandoned cat and her kittens. They form a family with a lonely, chained up hound dog. This family's story is intertwined with the thousand-year-old story of a a magical creature, half-woman, half-snake, and her family tragedy. Linking the stories together are a thousand-year-old tree, and an even more ancient alligator. Appelt blends these two stories together seamlessly, filling both with the sights and smells and sounds on an ancient wood.
The Underneath is beautifully written and moving. Kathi Appelt is a gifted writer. My copy is littered with post-it flags marking eloquent turns of phrase. 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.
I'm going to spare you a full review, since this book has already been reviewed all over the place, and everyone seems to love it. But here are a couple of passages, to give you an idea of the quality of Appelt's writing:
"Whenever there is a breeze in the old forest, you might, for a moment, realize that the trees are singing. There, on the wind, are the voices of sugarberry and juniper and maple, all telling you about this hound, this true-blue hound, tied to a post. They have been watching him all these years, listening to his song, and if he knew what the trees were singing, it might be about how he found a friend." (Page 25)
"Cats are famous for purring. And this is what the calico cat did as she curled up next to Ranger's massive chest, safe and soft. Until he heard it, Ranger had not realized how much he needed this sweet, friendly sound. How much he needed someone to settle in next to him. He didn't know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn't. So many needs in one old dog." (Page 30)
"Bones, fur, milk, curiosity. That is what cats are made of." (Page 71)
"A cat with hiccups cannot sneak up on anything. A cat with hiccups is a sorry sight." (Page 110)
The entire book is like that. You could pretty much pick any page to quote from, and it would be lyrical and distinctive. I must confess that I'm a bit concerned about the level of kid-appeal with this title. Yes, there are animals as the protagonists, and the kittens are very cute. But I'm not sure that middle grade readers really look for that these days. The cover shows the characters quite nicely, but is it really going to make someone who isn't into animal stories pick up the book? I'm just not sure... I would be interested to hear some feedback from actual kids on this one. But if you're an adult looking for a lovely, thoughtful, suspenseful read, this is one to try.
© 2009 by Jennifer Robinson of Jen Robinson's Book Page. All rights reserved.