The Underneath

Book review by
Matt Berman, Common Sense Media
The Underneath Book Poster Image
Popular with kids
Gripping story is loving, lyrical, but has brutal violence.

Parents say

age 11+
Based on 15 reviews

Kids say

age 10+
Based on 17 reviews

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A lot or a little?

The parents' guide to what's in this book.

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 & Representations

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. 


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.

What 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.

User Reviews

  • Parents say
  • Kids say
Adult Written byla figure a. March 3, 2018

Impactfully heartbreaking.

I recall being in the 5th grade and reading The Underneath for the first time; When I finished I was teary and refused to look at the book for months. Yet, it... Continue reading
Parent of a 8-year-old Written byMuttiblus September 27, 2016

Not what I expected

Book store recommended this to me to read with my daughter. Arguably, my daughter might be a touch more mature than average. She was a few months from turning 9... Continue reading
Teen, 14 years old Written bycatagent August 11, 2020


Kid, 11 years old December 28, 2019

Best Book Ever!!!

Though it's sad and has a little violence, it's also meaningful and really really good. It goes back and forth through times, and that's why I th... Continue reading

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.

Talk to your kids 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

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