Publisher: Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Shuster
Ages: 9 to 12
Awards: National Book Award Finalist, Newberry Honor Book 2009
When I pick up books that are geared for middle readers (children between the ages of 9 to 12), I try to imagine my students reading the book. Would the cover catch their eye? Will the story speak to them in some untold way? Do the characters look like them? But most importantly would they read this book even if I hadn’t assigned the book?
Many of my students are known as reluctant readers. Most are students who are English Language Learners from homes with limited resources, and few adult reader role-models. Despite their life challenges, these students do want to read. The hurdle I face is finding a story that will draw them in and convince them to keep reading without being told to read. So it was with this in mind that I approached Kathi Appelt’s novel The Underneath.
My initial impression of the story’s premise was that it was a tale of friendship between some kittens and a hound. The book summary states “An old hound that has been chained up at his hateful owner’s run-down shack, and two kittens born underneath the house, endure separation, danger, and many other tribulations”. So far sounds like a typical children’s book centered on animals. When you flip open the front cover flap, it states “…Appelt spins a harrowing yet keenly sweet tale about the power of love – and its opposite hate – the fragility of happiness and the importance of making good on your promises.” How harrowing can a children’s story be?
Within a few pages of starting the story, the author tells the story of a child who has been severely beaten by his father who then passes out drunk and who’s mother abandon’s him. The child takes his father’s rifle and leaves home. He grows up to be a bitter, unpleasant man who abuses animals, has a penchant for rum, vodka, and gin and a score to settle with a king alligator. After I got over my initial shock of the description of violence and excessive drinking in the first several chapters (this is a children's book), I hoped that the story would improve and I could find several redeeming qualities about the book.
As I continued, I found myself frustrated with the initial pacing of the story and the style of writing. The slow development of characters and the meandering between the tale of a pregnant calico cat who give birth to twin kittens and befriends Ranger, an abused hound dog, and Grandmother Moccasin (an ancient snake shape-shifter), and then Gar Face the violent, abusive owner of Ranger made it difficult to settle into the story. I had to force myself to keep reading and not put the book down. I kept hoping that the book had a redeeming element. Finally about 100 pages into the story, I had become interested enough in the tale of the kittens and the hound and had the basic premise of each of the parallel stories to propel me forward. Yet when I thought about my students, I knew they never would have continued with this book unless I forced them to read it. If a children’s book takes me 100 pages (out of 300 pages) to finally grab my interest in it, then I know my students aren’t going to hang in there long enough to care about what happens to the animals. The sad part is that I am not even sure my 9 year old niece who is a very competent and enthusiastic reader would hang in there for the first 100 pages.
Appelt’s story weaves together the themes of friendship, loyalty, betrayal, anger, abandonment and loss as she works to intertwine the three separate stories into one. However, the story’s heavy narrative and cumbersome prose burdens this allegorical tale, especially at the beginning. Though the ending does have an element of redemption for Grandmother Moccasin and hope for the kittens and hound, it was not enough to balance out the heavy themes and descriptions of all the characters lives and sorrows. The periodic simple pencil drawings of illustrator David Small do little to enhance the story.
Though I am not one to ban or challenge a book because I do believe that children need to be exposed to a variety of topics, this is one book that I would cautiously recommend. I doubt that my students would be shocked to read about physical abuse towards children, or alcoholic parents or even abandonment; their lives are filled with every day realities of abuse and neglect. What the story fails to do is provide enough hope and redemption to balance out such heavy themes as abandonment, and betrayal. Additionally, the descriptive violence against the animals in the book might actually be more troubling to children who tend to care deeply about these creatures.
Despite The Underneath having been given the 2009 Newberry Honor Book Award, I would reluctantly recommend the story and would not encourage my colleagues to use it as part of any mandatory classroom reading list.