I had a thing for animal-character books when I was younger, something that has sort of continued (the “Talking Animals Movies” category will sometimes be recommended by Netflix). Redwall by Brain Jacques, Kenneth Oppel’s Silverwing, David Clement-Davies’ Fire-Bringer, and Kate diCamillo’s The Tale of Despereaux were all some of my favorite books. But Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath, published in 2008, took that category to an entire other level and showed just how much exceptional writing is happening in books for adolescents and young adults (and the fact that the book is illustrated by David Small, whose memoir Stitches is an incredible book, shows how exceptional art is also present in books for adolescents and young adults). Appelt followed this book for adolescents (she has a slew of picture books written for younger readers) with Keeper a book about a blue moon, mermaids, BD (Best Dog), and a seagull called Captain. It’s a whimsical, beautiful book that drops the reader right into the story, and together, both books show Appelt to be one of the best writers for children right now.
The Underneath begins with the lines, “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. A small calico cat. Her family, the one she lived with, has left her in this old and forgotten forest, the forest where the rain is soaking into her soft fur.” The calico cat is about to have kittens, a daughter named Sabine, and a son named Puck, and she searches for a place that she can go to rest.
The cat meets with a dog named Ranger, an old hound chained out front of a house, who sings songs in blues and jazz, mournful and aching with a sound that “sounded exactly how she [the calico cat] felt.” Ranger invites the cat to live in “The Underneath,” the dark space beneath the porch where she will not be found. Ranger belongs to Gar-Face, an old man who grew up steeped in hatred, who left home at an early age, and collected cruelty. The author warns the reader,
“For twenty-five years, while the old loblolly pine shed its branches and bark into the Little Sorrowful Creek and watched them drift toward the sea, Gar Face had roamed this hidden forest. Here, underneath the canopy of the watching willow and birches and ash. Over this past quarter century, the years have softened the old pine. No so Gar Face. Do not cross his angry path. Do not.”
Ranger’s hard life under Gar Face is told in remarkable detail, including the bullet still lodged in his leg from when his owner shot him. When Gar face discovers the cat and kittens under the porch, he sets a chain of events in motion that carry the novel to its conclusion.
And beyond these intersecting stories is something very old, buried in a jar underneath the ground, that is waking up again.
Appelt tells the story of the old hound, the calico cat, and two small kittens in this lyrical, poetic novel. The refrain of “Stay in the Underneath. You’ll be safe in the Underneath” echoes throughout, as the animals are caught between overwhelming love and hate, and navigate the space between.