I saw a wonderful column back in December in the SF Chronicle about children’s books that featured animals as their main characters. Within the column were two lists, one of classics and one of “not quite classics.” The Underneath, by Kathi Appelt, fell into the latter category.
Based on the description provided within the column, I knew I wanted to make this book part of my holiday gift list. The book was described as a children’s book, but one that could easily be enjoyed and appreciated by adults as well, in much the same manner as the Harry Potter series. That was all I needed to hear. Come holiday time, I asked --- and I received, along with several other books.
I purposely waited until I finished the other books I received over the holidays before beginning this one, as I had a feeling that this book would be something memorable and wanted to be able to linger a bit with it.
I’ll say this much --- the book definitely lingers with you. Part animal tale, part mythological journey along with a dose of easily one of the very baddest bad guys ever to be featured in children’s lit, The Underneath is a book that defies an easy summation. It only took the briefest of introductions to the bad guy for me to decide that, children's book or not, this dude could haunt a couple of dreams. Is he too scary for kids? I still can’t decide. Perhaps as an adult who has seen the ramifications of animal abuse, the villain strikes me differently than he would a child who has yet to be acquainted with those who commit acts of meanness against the vulnerable.
Part of me felt the material was for a much older audience than it was being recommended for, while another part remembers some of the books I read as a child. They certainly had their share of less than honorable characters and fairly “mature” themes and I clearly lived to tell about it.
The Underneath weaves a number a storylines simultaneously, jumping from plot to plot in an almost frantic manner. Once I got the rhythm, it was interesting the see the way all of the pieces were woven and how it would all tie together in the end, and I was not disappointed.
Part fantasy, part love story, part adventure tale, The Underneath frequently struck me as a nearly perfect book to be read aloud to youngsters, as the author’s use of syntax seemed uniquely suited for narration.
400-plus words later, for those inclined to animal stories, it's definitely worth a look.