The Underneath


Now I’ve met plenty of true villains in all my years of reading. Or, at least I thought I’d met real villains. That was before I discovered Gar Face, from Kathy Appelt’s Newbery Honor title, The Underneath. He’s bad, so, so bad. I hate him. I really do. He’s the kind of bad guy that forces you to redefine bad guy.

I described the events of this book to my husband in installments as I was reading over the past few days, and I think at first he thought I was making it up, all the sad, sad things that happen to the animal characters one after the other and then a little bit more all the way to the end. Today, I got home from school after having finished reading it on the streetcar. I sat down and told him how it all turned out, and as I got close to the end I pretty much lost it, kind of half choking at the worst part and then picking up my own sweet hound and scratching his curly head while I finished telling the story.

We started talking about who is meant to read The Underneath, because I have to wonder how many kids will read it. I’m not saying that there are no children out there to read The Underneath. Nor am I saying that I wouldn’t want a child to read it. It’s just that I wonder if perhaps some of the most extreme scenes of animal abuse really need to be depicted in order for the author to achieve her purpose and to sustain the intensity she has created so brilliantly here.

Now don’t accuse me of “not getting it” everybody. Believe me, I get it. Appelt is writing about evil (and loss and hope and love in the darkest, most horrible circumstances). The kind of evil that is so far beyond redemption. I know that the fact she didn’t shy away from the scenes of extreme cruelty to animals played a huge role in my total emotional investment in this story, and in her characters. I will never forget Ranger and Puck and Sabine. Ever. They’ll be in my head, roaming about together for a long, long time, and I’m glad to have met them. I’m just not convinced this is a book for kids. Kids could read it. Some kids will read it. The Underneath is one of the most powerful novels I’ve read in a long time, and it already feels like a classic. I’ll line up to read whatever Kathi Appelt comes up with next, that’s for sure. (I’m kind of hoping there won’t be kittens in it though).

I’ve indicated this title as Middle Grade, YA and Crossover. There will be kids and teens and adults who’ll love it. It’s just got to find the right readers. For goodness sake don’t go passing it to anybody (child or grown up) who lost it when they read Stone Fox or Charlotte’s Web and the like. Clearly those stories are for sissies.

For more about The Underneath, try out one of the many reviews in the kidlitosphere:

Sarah Miller
Fuse 8
The Reading Zone
Seven Imp
Educating Alice

Now, for a complete change of pace, I think this might do the trick:




3 thoughts on “The Underneath

  1. thereadingzone

    As I’m sure you know, I read it with my kids, who loved it. Of course they didn’t all love it, but between that, DIAMOND WILLOW, and CHAINS, it took about 1/3 of the vote in our Newbery vote.

    What I found interesting was that my kids actually tried to sympathize with Gar Face! They talked about how his father treated his mother, how he was raised (clearly) without love from his father and learning only abuse from him. I hadn’t even thought of that when I read it!


  2. Sally Murphy

    Sounds like a torid read. these are the books which one doesn’t know whether to love or hate – when the writing is so good that you feel every hurt. I will keep a look out for it, if I dare.

  3. shelfelf Post author

    Sarah – It’s pretty amazing the way kids are can be so compassionate and so willing to look for understanding. Good for you for reading this with your class. I’m not sure I would be able to get through it dry-eyed. (Not that it’s a bad thing to shed a tear or two in front of the class, in my opinion).

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