The Underneath

Common Sense Media says

Gripping story is loving, lyrical, but has brutal violence.




ALA Best and Notable BooksNewbery Medal and Honors

What parents need to know

Educational value

Sophisticated readers will love the poetic language and compelling storytelling here: Three different threads move back and forth between the reality of the swamp, the world of the "underneath," and the mythical world of shape-shifters, and they intertwine in short chapters that follow no obvious pattern. 

Positive messages

Hate and anger poison the spirits of the evil, brutal characters, while love and loyalty help the dog and the kittens survive through very dire circumstances. 

Positive role models

The bloodhound, the calico, and the kittens are selfless and loving. Grandmother Moccasin lashes out in her loneliness, selfishly destroying exactly what she loved, but learns in the end that selfless love is
the only real salvation.


Violence is vividly, though not gratuitously, described: A pregnant cat is dumped by the swampy roadside, a young boy poisons a bird bath and laughs when his mother finds a dead cardinal, the boy is struck in the face, knocked into unconsciousness, and permanently scarred by his outraged father. A cat and her kitten are put in a gunny sack and thrown into the river, a dog is kicked, beaten, and shot. 


Not applicable
Not applicable
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Some drinking by adults, but it's not glamorized: A brutal man drinks vodka on many occasions and becoming uglier and even more brutal with each swig. He also hangs out every night in a saloon in the swamp, where he trades pelts for liquor, and sits in the corner alone drinking and becoming more vengeful and morose.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know The Underneath, a finalist for the National Book Award, a Newbery Honor Book, and an ALA Notable Book, is a beautifully written, thought-provoking novel. But it's not simply a cuddly dog/cat adventure that the cover picture implies it might be. It has a poetic beauty that is both realistic and mystical, and tells a gripping, suspenseful story that's full of heart. However, it also has a dark, almost gothic brutality that might be difficult for younger, more sensitive readers; in the course of the book, a drunken man deforms a child, a cat is drowned, and there's much menace. Three different threads move back and forth between the reality of the swamp, the world of the "underneath," and the mythical world of shape-shifters, and they intertwine in short chapters that follow no obvious pattern. If readers are mature enough to follow the threads, they most likely are mature enough to deal with the harshness of the more gothic moments. Those readers will find this book a real page-turner.

Parents say

Kids say

What's the story?

Three different stories intertwine, and they all take place in the swampy darkness of the Louisiana bayou. After a pregnant calico is dumped by the side of the road, she finds her way to THE UNDERNEATH, which is a safe haven she shares with Ranger, a kindly bloodhound that's been chained to the porch by her cruel owner, Gar Face. There she has two kittens. Their story becomes one of how to survive the harshness of nature, but even more the brutality of Gar Face. Meanwhile, Gar Face, who's a sad, angry, brutal drunken swamp dweller, is on a mission to hunt down and kill the monstrously large alligator that people only talk about. He is driven by hatred and revenge. And he owns the shack under which Ranger lives and the kittens hide. The third story is that of a shape-shifter, Grandmother Moccasin, who has been trapped for thousands of years in a jar caught in the roots one of the loblolly trees. She's a dangerous character, full of loneliness and poisoned by hate and revenge.

Is it any good?


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. Appelt doesn't just tell us how the characters are feeling, or what the swamp is like; she shows us. And that's exactly what good literature does. The reader is there in the bayou with the abandoned cat, the baying hound, the swaying loblolly pines, and feeling the lonely mystery of their world.

The world can be a brutal place, especially this place. Nature is harsh enough, but the cruelty of damaged, lonely characters driven by revenge make it worse for themselves and everyone around them, especially for small, dependent creatures like kittens. The bad guy is clearly bad, and the good guys are good. Gar Face is lonely, sad, and mean. He lives an ugly life, even brutalizing the bloodhound that had once been his trusty hunting companion. On the other hand, even though Ranger, the calico, and the kittens seem destined to live in the "underneath," their lives are loving and meaningful. They all make selfless choices that help them build a family, and survive the menacing world around them. The shape-shifting Grandmother Moccasin is a little more complicated. But her story underlines the primary theme that hatred poisons one’s life, while love and compassion heals.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the mismatched elements of the book. The picture on the cover makes it seem like a story for little kids -- but the violence and sophisticated storytelling are targeted more toward older tweens. Why do you think the publisher chose the image?

  • Parents might want to discuss the different kinds of violence in a book. Is reading about violence different from seeing it in a movie? Is it easier to handle if you know it's fiction? 

Book details

Author:Kathi Appelt
Illustrator:David Small
Topics:Adventures, Cats, dogs, and mice, Friendship, Misfits and underdogs, Science and nature, Wild animals
Book type:Fiction
Publication date:May 1, 2008
Number of pages:313
Publisher's recommended age(s):10 - 12
Available on:Audiobook (unabridged), Hardback, iBooks, Kindle, Nook, Paperback
Awards:ALA Best and Notable Books, Newbery Medal and Honors

This review of The Underneath was written by

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Kid, 12 years old January 8, 2011

A Little Violent

I really enjoyed reading this book. I read it over the summer of going into sixth grade and I really liked it. There is a lot of violence though and the owner of the hound dog often beats the dog (also in the book the owner accidently shoots the dog in his leg). This book almost brought tears to my eyes for how violent it was and how the animals were treated. But it was still a good book.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Too much drinking/drugs/smoking
Parent of a 7 and 12 year old Written byaghurrican October 3, 2010

Weirdly Violent

I thought this book was weirdly and gratuitously violent for the age group for which it was intended.
What other families should know
Too much violence
Parent of a 8 and 10 year old Written byjentinematz January 23, 2010

really difficult and sad book

My 10 year old was very disturbed by the violence, the sad plot, the way the animals were treated. She feels like the animal troubles are excessive and the human characters just awful. she does not think it is at all appropriate for any one who like animals or is a sensitive person.
What other families should know
Too much violence


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