A Lot or a Little?
What you will—and won't—find in this book.
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.
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 & Scariness
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.
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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.
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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.
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.
Did we miss something on diversity?
Research shows a connection between kids' healthy self-esteem and positive portrayals in media. That's why we've added a new "Diverse Representations" section to our reviews that will be rolling out on an ongoing basis. You can help us help kids by suggesting a diversity update.