In 2008, my friend on the Newbery Committee asked me to do her a big favor. She wanted me to read books and give her my opinion. Just look at the sacrifice she asked me to make: 1 – I had to read. 2 – I had to give my opinion. Out of the goodness of my heart, I agreed. I didn’t read nearly as many books as the committee members, and I didn’t have the burden of getting this right since that award makes a book an unending part of the children’s literature canon. However, I took it seriously and read about 50 books. One of those was The Underneath by Kathi Appelt.
Now, Kathi had to overcome a couple of things to get me involved in this book. First, I am not a cat person. Secondly, for pleasure I choose historical fiction – not books with shape-shifters. But she hooked me with her first line, “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.”
I followed that hook at once with my first reading. I read quickly from beginning to end, anxious for the animals in the “dark and holy” Underneath and for the shape-shifters in the Caddo woods bordering Little Sorrowful Creek. Compelled to finish in a sitting, I breathed a sigh of relief when the ends were tied together into a satisfying close. So what did I do then?
I immediately turned the book back to the beginning and read slowly. I read the first time as a reader. This time I read as a writer, looking to see how Kathi Appelt worked her magic. I saw her move back and forth from the forest to the Underneath, from the animals to the shape-shifters. I was reminded of weavers on a loom, plying their threads over and under and around until a beautiful pattern emerges. I relished description made me settle into the darkness and safety of the Underneath, feel the warmth of the goldy sun, or shudder in the midst of the storm.
I loved her poetic rules and their refrain:
• Do not cross his angry path. Do not.
• Do not look into that mouth of cotton. Do not.
• Do not get in front of the man and his rifle. Do not.
After I finished my second read, I suggested that our Oak Grove Library buy a copy and they did.
So why did I read The Underneath a third time? Missing is a theme in the book, and I felt it myself. It’s been four years, and I missed Ranger, Sabine, and Puck. I missed the Alligator King, Grandmother Moccasin, and Night Song. I even missed Gar Face a little bit. So I returned to the library this month and checked it out. I was pleased that the book was no longer in pristine condition – not from being treated roughly, just from having been read often.
Had the choice been mine, this would have been the winner of the Newbery. This is not the first time that I have preferred an honor book over the winner. Truth to tell, after the cream rises to the top in each year’s selections, good arguments can be made for any of those books. I am really glad the burden of that right choice is not on my shoulders.
Just the same, I will conclude this blog with an important admonition:
Do not miss this book. Do not.