“The Underneath” by Kathi Appelt: Children’s Book Review

Updated on July 3, 2020
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Rose is an enthusiastic writer and reader who publishes articles every Thursday. She enjoys all book genres, especially drama and fantasy.

What’s the Big Deal?

As a National Book Award finalist and winner of both the John Newberry Medal and PEN USA Literary Award for Children’s Literature, The Underneath is a novella made to capture the hearts of kids—or, as reviewers sometimes say, to break hearts and then piece them back together again. It’s a story of love and hate, adventure and grief, told through multiple interwoven narratives that keep readers enraptured the whole way through.

Book Summary

“There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for a while, and then abandoned on the side of the road.” That’s right. A small calico cat, pregnant, facing a brewing storm. She is wandering along the road when she comes across a sound: the mournful howl of a hound dog, chained and confined to the yard of a horrible, violent man known as Gar Face.

The calico and Ranger become unlikely friends, but the cat must stay out of Gar Face’s sight at all times—for if he saw her, he would surely use her as alligator bait for the rivers and bayous they live on. This rule is implemented when her two kittens are born, too; have fun and play, but stay beneath the porch safely out of sight. But of course, kittens are curious creatures. It didn’t take long for Puck, the boy kitten, to wander out for a few blissful seconds of sunshine—and then promptly be snatched up, along with the mother calico, and taken away.

As the brief chapters (with occasional pictures) unfold, we learn about other stories, too. We meet Grandmother Moccasin, an ancient serpent set on getting revenge, and we learn why she has been trapped in a jar for a thousand years as well as why she thirsts for vengeance. We learn the tales of the trees, the birch and sequoia and elm, and even get perspective from an alligator at the bottom of the bayou.

Mostly, though, we learn about love. As Puck’s story unravels along with all the stories wrapped around it, kids discover the length of a family’s affection. Whether it’s a chapter about Ranger and Sabine, Puck’s sister; Gar Face and his violent ways and drunken father; or even Grandmother Moccasin and her daughter, tales of family are the main focus of the book. Though they aren’t always pretty, they’re written in beautiful prose, and the happy ending has me in tears every time.

Quick Facts

Book Info
Author: Kathi Appelt
Pages: 311
Genre: Children’s, fantasy fiction
Ratings: 4/5 Goodreads, 4/5 Common Sense Media
Release date: May 6, 2008
Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers

To Read or Not to Read?

I recommend this book to kids:

  • Aged 10 or older, or younger if they’re mature and can handle slight violence (Common Sense Media has good reviews to double-check what’s right for each individual)
  • Who enjoy fairy tales—although The Underneath isn’t one, it does have some mystical elements
  • That enjoy animal stories like Shiloh or authors like Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings and Flannery O’Connor
  • Who are emotionally intelligent and have experienced feelings of despair, loss, and other sadnesses

“Purring is not so different from praying. To a tree, a cat's purr is one of the purest of all prayers, for in it lies a whole mixture of gratitude and longing, the twin ingredients of every prayer.”

Reviews

“...it is beautifully written, with nuances and prose patterns that elevate the story in places to the status of myth or legend... The last 1/4 of the book rivals my all-time favorite animal story, Where the Red Fern Grows, as a picture of animal devotion and selfless love. I give this one my “highly recommended” designation, but with the caveat that it might be difficult for some sensitive children to read.” —Wordpress.com

“From the beginning, the threat of danger is jarring and gripping, and from there, expressive language weaves a vivid, passionate story that's both eloquent and haunting.” —Common Sense Media

Kathi Appelt, the book’s author
Kathi Appelt, the book’s author

The Takeaway

I read this book an infinite number of times as a kid. Although the ending made me cry and at first I couldn’t believe how “violent” it was—there is a brief section describing Gar Face being hit by his father, breaking bones and splitting skin, although I was 7 or 8 at the time and too young to understand—I absolutely love this book with my whole heart.

I still read it, sometimes, to this day, because of the beautiful, contagious language and heartwarming story. There is no children’s book like this one; it’s one of those that stay with you and grow with you, and I’m forever grateful that I couldn’t decide on a book that fateful day in Books-A-Million and my dad selected The Underneath for me.

If you’re interested, you can buy the book here.

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