Thursday, March 3, 2011

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

genre: middle grade literature

You never know, of course, where a story will take you. You don't know, when you pick up a story and begin to read it to your child, if you will laugh or cry, if you will be struck by the beauty of a phrase or feel actual pain as you have to keep reading the words aloud.

The Underneath is not an easy story to read aloud. For all of its incredible lyricism
- the images practically float above you as the words come out of your mouth - it's a harsh story. It's the story of a cat in the bayou. A cat that befriends, strangely enough, a hound dog, and when the cat has kittens, these lonely animals become a family. They create a space for themselves and even find happiness until one small, seemingly insignificant choice, brings down a rain of consequences that just change everything.

There are really three story lines in this book, one of which felt, for me, far too long and involved for how things tied together at the end. I could tell that the author was trying so hard to make it beautiful and poetic that sometimes it made it hard to read aloud - it felt repetitive and...meandering. Like our plot was in a rut. That's how it felt to me as an adult. I feel like a middle grade reader on his own might feel the same way (but who knows?) To my eight year old son that I read it out loud to, though? It didn't bother him at all. I honestly was afraid for a while that he would just be bored with it, but he never was - all the plot lines were interesting to him and he asked a lot of questions about what we were reading. There are a few incredibly intense and harsh characters in this book - one is a man and one is a snake. When I mean harsh, I mean scary harsh. I had to explain alcoholism and abuse and how a person could get so...rotten on the inside.

But in some ways, I can see how that rotten to the core character was necessary to the story she was telling. There is so much about love, about not giving up on the people you love, about being willing to let go of things that maybe YOU want but that might not be good for someone else - he's the perfect contrast to those ideas.

This book took longer than others to read, but the pictures broke things up nicely and I'm really glad we stuck with it. In fact, I can hardly talk right now because I ended up reading it out loud for an hour and fifteen minutes because we HAD to know how it ended. There were tears (I wasn't the only one) shed, gasps of surprise and at one point near the end my two older children actually shouted and said, "that is an AWESOME ending!" But when I closed it, my darling boy said, 'THAT was a good story."

And I think he's right.


bermudaonion said...

It sounds like this was a wonderful book for you to share with your son.

Gerbera Daisy Diaries said...

I reshelved this at the library today and thought, "hmmm...I wonder what this is all about?"

Anonymous said...

I've always loved the cover of this book! Someday I'll get around to reading it!

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