The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

Wow. What a book. What a story. What an amazing piece of writing.

Now I admit it took me a while to read this one. While I definitely enjoyed sad animal stories as a child, now, with the occasional exception, I avoid them. And so, when I received a gorgeously packaged ARC of Kathi Appelt‘s The Underneath, I admired it (as it is handsomely illustrated by David Small) , and then read the flap. “An abandoned calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up dog….” Nope. Not for me. Until someone told me it reminded her of Russell Hoban‘s The Mouse and his Child which happens to be one of my favorite books. So yesterday, feeling lousy with allergies, a head cold, and a painful hip (can’t run which is misery for me), I pulled out the ARC and read it.

And was immediately and utterly drawn in. I read without pausing till I was done. What a remarkable book. It is an adventure, a story of myth and magic, of sadness, of family — and is very beautifully done indeed. Yes, it is sad. Yes, there are abused animals. Even worse, some dead ones too. But, oh my goodness, is it rich and complex and gorgeous. I would have loved, loved, loved it as a child.

While I can see why someone might compare it to The Mouse and his Child because of the journey aspect of the story, the setting, and the sentiment within (and the illustrations as Small also did an edition of the Hoban book), it seems different to me. Another book this reminded me of was Kate DiCamillo‘s The Tale of Despereaux. The darkness, the multiple plot threads (from different points in time) all coming together slowly, the allegorical qualities, the magical elements are in both. But DiCamillo’s like Hoban’s has humor. Be warned that Appelt’s book is deadly serious. Another one I thought of after reading this book was Rudyard Kipling’s The Jungle Book. But it truly is a book of its own, strikingly original.

What is it about? Hard to describe. It takes place in a deep Southern bayou — a place full of sentient trees, of intelligent animals, of shapeshifting creatures, a place of misery and mystery, a place of magic and myth. Within this magical yet hyper real place are two twisting and intersecting groups of beings. There is the bad man, an abused dog, a calico cat and her twin kittens. And then there is the other group. The magical and mythical one. The story threads swirl and twist around each other, a mix of the past and the present.

Just writing this makes me get all hyperbolic. Sorry! Suffice it to say I recommend it and look forward to hearing what others think about it.



Filed under animal stories, Children's Literature

13 responses to “The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

  1. ok–I’m sold and will add it to my shopping list!


  2. Do you agree with me about the Mouse and His Child tone, or am I just completely and utterly crazy? Glad you liked the book. I should review it soon soon soon.


  3. Betsy, I definitely see what you mean about the Hoban. It is in the tone and the magic and mythic sensibility. But, as I wrote above, Hoban has some funny moments while Appelt is pretty consistently serious. Hoban is also far more meandering plotwise. I know you wondered about audience; I think this will go over very well with the right kids. I may read it aloud to my class next fall (as there isn’t time enough to read it to this year’s group — school ends in mid June) to see.


  4. Pingback: Thoughts on Newbery: Atmosphere « educating alice

  5. Melina

    I loved this book. It’s spellbinding. I checked it out from the library this weekend and really didn’t know what to expect from the book jacket blurb. Initially, I was drawn to the illustrations. But after reading just a few pages, I was hooked. Appelt is a truly gifted writer. I sure hope award committee members take notice of her talents.

    Now that I’ve read your blog, I look forward to reading “The Mouse and His Child.” In the meantime, I’m going to buy my own copy of “The Underneath.”


  6. Tish

    My daughter and I just finished this wonderful book. She will be going into the fourth grade. As a teacher, I think any younger is probably a little too young to really grasp it. I hope to do a read-aloud in the fall with my students and incorporate vocabulary studies, writing activites, and art. This is truly a work of well done literature. I have to admit, reading the sad parts aloud is difficult. — It made me think of The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane by Kate DiCamillo, another great one.


  7. Pingback: Book Review: The Underneath « 100 Scope Notes

  8. lauren gabrielle rogers

    i love the book but i have to do a report on similes and i dont know if the book has any similes so i need your help i need to know all the similes in the book i am 12 years old just if you were wondering

    sinsirely lauren gabrielle rogers


    • ryan

      did you get any feed back on the similes in the book ? I doing a report on the samething right now and would be curious what you found out….thanks. By the way, I am almost 11 years old.


  9. Pingback: Thoughts on Newbery: Appeal « educating alice

  10. Pingback: Kathi Appelt « Bestbookihavenotread’s Weblog

  11. Monica,

    This is my Newbery pick, which I like even better than THE GRAVEYARD BOOK. I am hoping to find some high school readers for this one. I will let you know.



  12. Pingback: The Underneath « Shelf Elf: read, write, rave.

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