Great Illustrated Books

The Underneath

By Kathi Appelt, Illustrated by David Small

Atheneum, 2008
Pages : 320
Suggested Ages: 9 and Up
ISBN: 9781416950585

From its first sentence—"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."—you are pulled into the aura of this extraordinary book, a melding of two seemingly unrelated stories. First, there is the abandoned calico cat who has been walking for days in the forest by the East Texas creek called the Little Sorrowful, and takes shelter from the rain beneath an ancient tree, a loblolly pine. There's Ranger, a hound dog, kept chained on the back porch of a shabby wreck of a house in the woods by a bitter and angry trapper called Gar-Face. Buried deep under the roots of that pine tree for a thousand years or more, is a huge jar containing the trapped body of Grandmother Moccasin, an ancient magical creature, a lamia, clothed in her serpent shape, still thirsting for vengeance for losing her daughter, Night Song, to Hawk Man, who loved her. When that pine is felled, Grandmother will be free.

You've probably never met a crueler, more irredeemable character than Gar-Face, who tortures his own dog; Jeb Travers, the antagonist in Shiloh by Phyllis Reynolds Naylor was a nice guy by comparison. Gar-Face's obsession is to trap the 100-foot Alligator King in the deep and muddy Bayou Tartine. Ranger, who has never known love, is captivated with the little calico cat, and bids her to hide under the house, in the Underneath, so Gar-Face won't discover her or her two new kittens, Puck and Sabine. Chapters are short—between one and six pages. The omniscient narrator cuts quickly from the here and now to ancient times and back, so readers will need to keep track of the separate plotlines that will eventually all intersect. Mystical and lyrical, Appelt's descriptions evoke an unforgettable sense of place; the trees and the swamp and the steamy humidity are as tangible as the passionately drawn characters.

This is a dark book, a Southern Gothic-like novel with elements of folklore, that will stay in your thoughts and heart for a long time. All the repeated phrases and the use of sentence fragments make this an unforgettable read-aloud, though there is much heartbreak ahead, so be forewarned. If you're talking with your kids about how books make pictures in your heads and how we need to visualize when we read, here you go. I foretell a Newbery Medal for this noteworthy novel.

Reviewed by : JF.


If you love this book, then try:

Burnford, Sheila. The Incredible Journey. Delacorte, 1996, c1960.

DiCamillo, Kate. The Miraculous Journey of Edward Tulane. Candlewick, 2006.

DiCamillo, Kate. The Tale of Despereaux. Candlewick, 2003.

Frost, Helen. Diamond Willow. Farrar, 2008.

Naylor, Phyllis Reynolds. Shiloh. Atheneum, 1991.

Sachar, Louis. Holes. Farrar, 1998.

White, E. B. Charlotte's Web. HarperCollins, 1952.

Critics have said

A mysterious and magical story; poetic yet loaded with suspense.
Louis Sachar

Aided by Small's lively illustrations, Appelt intricately weaves these animals' ancient stories into Puck's survival saga

to produce a magical tale of betrayal, revenge, love and the importance of keeping promises.