The Underneath

by Kathi Appeltunderneath
{ 2008 | Atheneum | 320 pgs }

The Underneath is a Newbery Honor book, which is impressive as it is Appelt’s first novel. It’s about animals, the deep South (think bayous and alligators), shape shifters, and revenge. While I wouldn’t necessarily call it a children’s book – it’s an ALA Notable Book for middle readers, and is definitely too mature for young readers – Appelt has produced a fascinating piece of literature.

To begin with, there’s a calico cat who has two kittens (Puck and Sabine). There’s the hound, Ranger, who befriends them. There’s Ranger’s owner, the bitter, hardened, excruciatingly mean and tortuous Gar Face. Woven into their story is the tale of Grandmother Moccasin, an ancient snake who can take human form once in her life (a distant relative of mermaids and selkies), and the loneliness that drives her to exact revenge on those whom she believes have betrayed her.

The writing is, for the most part, exquisite. Appelt’s sentence structure and narration style is very unique, and I loved the elements of repetition that made the story feel like it was really being told – not just communicated. That being said, I cannot express how much I hated the excessive use of exclamation points. Additionally, whenever Appelt was presenting Grandmother Moccasin’s thoughts, the snake-speak hissing was over-the-top. For example:

Grandmother hissed. Sssssttttt!!!

and

The prrriiiicccccce! she whispered. There’s a prrriiiccce.

Seriously, I can’t stand it. I know it’s just a pet peeve of mine, and honestly, the book is in all other respects superb. But I had a really hard time getting past the exclamation points and hissing.

If you don’t mind it like I did – and probably even if you do – it’s worth reading. As I said, Appelt is a masterful storyteller and the two plots are intricately woven together. It was so enjoyable to watch them develop alonside each other and then begin to combine.

Tweet: In the mood for some timeless bayou storytelling? Pick up The Underneath by Kathi Appelt. Her characters are unbelievably believable.

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