Joe's Reviews > The Underneath

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
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's review
Nov 23, 2008

did not like it
bookshelves: borrowed-friend, newbery-honor, national-book-award-finalist, middle-grade, realistic-fiction
Recommended for: Passive-aggressive gift givers ("I'm giving you a gift... but it sucks!")

There is nothing lonelier than a cat who has been loved, at least for awhile, and then abandoned on the side of the road.

This is the breathtaking opening sentence of The Underneath - a sentence that has already been over-quoted and will probably lose its luster once it is revealed as The Great Deceptor. What follows this ingenious sentence, however, is not nearly as captivating.

Kathi Appelt's asinine debut novel is inexplicably receiving buzz as a contender for the Newbery Medal. Perhaps after reading the stunning above-quoted sentence, many have just thought, "Yep, here's a winner!" and thrown the book to the side. Because there really can be no other logical reason for all the hype about The Underneath. Unless these same people are mistaking the Newbery for the Caldecott. After all, David Small's illustrations throughout this book are the book's strongest point. They're charming beyond belief.

Kathi Appelt's overly florid prose (think Hemingway geared toward kids) consists of annoying and sophomoric methods.

1. Repetition Ad Nauseum:
[p. 263] "And then came that night, that long-ago night when he had paused and Gar Face shot him, shot his own dog in the leg."

YES! We know about that night! Do you know why? Because you mentioned it in great detail fifty pages into the book. And then a couple more times in the middle. We've also received the same story in multiple pointless perspectives. We are also treated to repetitive stories about the Grandmother, the clay jar, the alligator, Gar Face... well, just about everything. Multiple chapters are just reiterations of "action" that has already taken place.

2. Run-Ons Disguised As Art:
[p. 108] "Saw him yelp and cry and howl until he had nothing left, until his neck was raw and bleeding where the chain dug into the skin, rubbed the fur away and left it bleeding, raw, sore, until he had no voice at all, until he didn't utter a single sound." (This also reinforces #1 - you've already mentioned he had no voice, which is the exact same thing as not uttering a single sound)

Virginia Woolf writes excellent run-on sentences. But she doesn't write for children. And she doesn't indulge in purple prose. Also, she actually has something to say. In the case of The Underneath, this method just comes across as Desperately Trying Too Hard.

3. Endless, Meaningless List:
[p. 83] "The Caddoo can be found in the memories of trees. Not just pines, but hackberries, tupelos, water oaks, winged elms, mulberries, cedars, cypresses, yaupons, bois d'arcs."

Surely he's making that up, you might be thinking. No one in their right mind would write a sentence that stupid, and no editor would tolerate it. Please, by all means, reference page 83 of the book. It's the third paragraph. Oh, and like most everything else in this 320 page snoozefest, it adds nothing to the story. Nothing.

4. Character Development Concealed As Violence
When Gar Face beats the living hell out of his dog, the violence is jarring... not because you don't expect it (the character, in the brief biographical sketch we get, is a mean old coot), but because there's virtually no development in either character. Therefore, the action seems rooted in stereotype rather than in anything remotely honest. In fact, the sequence just seems like a ridiculous ploy to get the reader to gasp. And it works. Until the wily reader thinks, "Wait a minute... I know virtually nothing about this dog or about this man. What the hell is going on here?" Are we just supposed to feel sorry and move on, or is something deeper here at work? Good luck figuring out that little koan.

5. Tone Shifting
From the first chapter, The Underneath meanders with a foreboding and funereal tone. And then the kittens are born. Suddenly, many chapters are manic and bouncy. Yes, this tone shift indicates the unbridled playfulness of the kittens, but bookended with the dour passages, it creates an unbelievable inconsistency. And when Appelt begins mashing together multiple points-of-view in a single paragraph - Holy Creative Writing No-No 101!

Here's a clue that something is amiss in a book: when reading, if you find yourself wondering things like, "I wonder if Axl Rose realizes he looks dumb with corn rows" or "Maybe I just haven't given cauliflower a fighting chance" or "Gee, I wonder how many interstitual hairs are on my index finger", then there is something very wrong with the book.

Want to turn children off to reading permanently? Hand them a copy of The Underneath. Chronic aliteracy will be nanoseconds away.
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Reading Progress

November 23, 2008 – Shelved
Started Reading
November 25, 2008 – Shelved as: borrowed-friend
November 25, 2008 – Finished Reading
January 26, 2009 – Shelved as: newbery-honor
February 14, 2009 – Shelved as: national-book-award-finalist
May 17, 2011 – Shelved as: middle-grade
November 6, 2017 – Shelved as: realistic-fiction

Comments (showing 1-28 of 28) (28 new)

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message 1: by Dee (new)

Dee Stop being so vague, Joe. I can't tell how you really felt about this book!

message 2: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Dear Julie,

Thank you for attacking me rather than attacking my arguments. If you have anything insightful to say without calling me grumpy, a literary snob, or arrogant, I will by happy to receive your comments and even engage in a lively debate - because isn't that what literature should inspire us to do? Think, discuss, and even disagree?


Julia L. Nope I don't care to have a sweet discussion with you. You and many self-rightous literary types always say you are being "attacked" when someone calls you a name or tells the horrible truth about your limited thinking. You are probably a nice guy when all is said and done. We might be friends sometime. But you "attacked" this book and I was pointing out that you used your little outline from reviewing class to test whether it was a good book or a poor one. It made me mad and I am too up in years to worry about the tender skin or psyche of young, puffed up folks. Just read the darn book for heaven's sakes, find its message and quit trying to explain it. You missed the message of the story and the beauty of it...does that sound any better? Probably not.

Just as sincerely and in friendship

message 4: by Marco (new)

Marco I came across this review when adding this title to my "to-read" books; it was recommended by a colleague. My comment is this: let's just all get along. :-) Every book has its fans and its haters. I haven't read this one yet, but I'm sure it has a message and story that many will find appealing. I'm sure there are others who will analyze its literary merit and hate it. We're all entitled to our own literary tastes and opinions. We all read books with our own "book brains" turned on, and we judge them by the criteria that we have decided are best for determining whether a book is good or not. Joe hates the book, Julie loves it. I appreciate both opinions. No need for anyone to get irate or offended.

Your fellow book lover (and hater),

Julia L. Someone has to get irate and offended sometimes. It is good for the soul, dear Marco. I guess I do go over-the-top in my reaction to what I perceive as a kind of academic snobbery that pervades just about everything from art to literature to poetry. Those of us who look or read to appreciate rather than judge are scorned because we "missed" something deeper and more obscure due to our lack of intelligence, or God forbid, did not mind a cliche or a still life of fruit now and then. I don't think a good fight now and then to defend our thoughts is a bad thing.

You are nice to make peace.


Alissa Just my two cents: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the books they read, and the beautiful thing about free speech is that we CAN give voice to those opinions. And we should be able to without being attacked for them.

Now I'm absolutely not agreeing with Joe's review here. I happened to love, love, love "The Underneath" (In fact, it's one of my favorite books to date--simply because I found it to be so unique, among other reasons). But there have been books that have been so hyped, so award-laden, and so raved-about that I absolutely HAD to read them...and then was bitterly disappointed by them. Example? "The Hunger Games". Another example? The whole "Narnia" series. Now I'm not going to sit here and bash these books to pieces. I'm not going to say they're horrible excuses for literature. Lots of people seem to like them, and that's cool. They just didn't appeal to me personally.

I guess I'm saying what Marco said: Let's just all try to agree to disagree, be considerate of other's opinions (there are no right or wrong opinions here), and try to get along :) A book that appeals 100% to 100% of EVERYONE (past, present, and furure) 100% of the time has yet to be written--and probably never will be.

Kathi I have to agree with this review. I just kept thinking "what the heck is this about" and I really can't see kids giving this one a chance. I certainly don't think this book will inspire them to read more. And if it gets the Newbery Award, I'm giving up on them!

Julia L. Not to worry, Kathi. All the awards passed it by I think. If you did not "get the story" that's too bad. I love places and characters found in the imagination. Always have. Maybe that is why I thought this book to be not only sad and scary, but charming as well. Her images are spot on. I think poetry when I read it.

Julie George

message 9: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Actually, Julie, the awards did not pass the book by. It was a finalist for the National Book Award and it won a Newbery Honor.

Julia L. I could not remember and did not want to give credit where not due. Thanks so much for setting me straight. You'd think I'd know, wouldn't you? Seems like years ago we had this conversation. After a second reading, I had to agree it was not fodder for the very young.

Julie George

Julion Soto Alissa wrote: "Just my two cents: Everyone is entitled to their own opinion about the books they read, and the beautiful thing about free speech is that we CAN give voice to those opinions. And we should be able ..."

But "the attack" is also free speech, what is your point?

Kerry Kenney I love this review, you nailed it!

message 13: by Nia (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nia Saunders I strongly disagree. The Underneath is a beautiful story about love and to beat it down by saying that its quotes are overused and that the violence in the book is meaningless, then you really need to read this again. Firstly, the violence in the book helps to even further portray the situation and it does develop the character more.

message 14: by Nia (new) - rated it 5 stars

Nia Saunders Also, I think the run on sentences are amazingly written, it contains emotion and all that good stuff. The repetition is just backing up what she already said, strengthening the story and what happened. IT'S AMAZING, GODDAMMIT. DON'T BE A HATER!

message 15: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Nia wrote: "Also, I think the run on sentences are amazingly written, it contains emotion and all that good stuff. The repetition is just backing up what she already said, strengthening the story and what happ..."

It isn't amazing, GODDAMMIT. YOU re-read it.

Jesus Christ, what is it with people who can't respectfully disagree with reviews and just get the fuck over it? If you love this book so goddamn much, you write a review of it so I can shit all over your damn review.

Lovetoread0919 pie this is actually a GOOD book!!! D=

message 17: by Rosa (new) - rated it 2 stars

Rosa I LOVE your review - but really wish I hadn't read it because I'm currently reading it aloud w/ my 8-yr-old & am only halfway through (and was really hating it for all the reasons you articulated so perfectly) - and I have to stick w/ it because he's been telling me he's bored & I've been reassuring him that It Will Get Better - We Have to Give It a Real Chance! and now I know, thanks to you, that nope, it won't. Everytime I get to one of the Grandmother chapters, I want to stick a knife in my thigh to stay awake - I seriously can't think off the top of my head of when I've encountered a more completely self-indulgent writing style... anyway, loved your review - in addition to being well-thought-out, you made me smile numerous times...

Shonna I actually liked it for the first 150 pages. The repetition didn't get to me at all. Unfortunately, the next 150 practically felt like I was rereading the story but with a heavy-handed abuse scene added, where the word "blood" was used 25 times. Then there was a resolution that was supposed to make me feel a sense of love and redemption. Sadly, I couldn't feel as connected to the characters as I wanted to at that point, because I was so filled with relief that I had finished the book.

Jaelyn Wutzke As I have said this to other people, that is the style of writing for this particular book. If you don't like the repetition, then don't read the book and stop complaining. If you can't do that, then you are stupid.

message 20: by Sian (new) - added it

Sian Whoa, everyone! Calm down!
It's a book. If you like it, good. If you don't, then there are millions of other books in the world you can go read instead.

message 21: by Zoe (new)

Zoe Kathi wrote: "I have to agree with this review. I just kept thinking "what the heck is this about" and I really can't see kids giving this one a chance. I certainly don't think this book will inspire them to ..."
I respect your opinion and Joe's, but I would really appreciate it if you didn't speak for other people. I'm in the 7th grade, and half my class has read this book and most of us liked it, a lot. I understand that you may find it hard to follow, since it's a little confusing for some people, and I also understand that it is a little verbose, but I just want to say that there are plenty of kids, including me, who think this book is great. I won't go into detail on why, since you may find it a little hard to follow, but I will say that this book has inspired more than one of my classmates to read more. I don't expect or want you to change your opinion on it, but please don't put words into the mouths of kids who have read it and love it.

Molly I thought it was a great book! I don't want to sound mean, but don't say anything if you don't have something nice to say! if you don't enjoy this book you can read another and move on!

Maddy You do realize this is a children's text? That this is a great way to introduce repetition, language, empathy, etc.? As a child, I needed the repetition. I honestly love her writing style as an adult. You can just state that you disliked the book rather than completely tearing it apart. It is meant for children and young adults. Not adult enthusiasts.

message 24: by Joe (new) - rated it 1 star

Joe Maddy - you incorrectly assume I am an adult enthusiast. OF COURSE I realize it's a children's book. Im not a moron. I am, though, a children's and young adult librarian - NOT that I should have to qualify myself to anyone let alone a complete stranger. But since you've chosen to cast suspicion on my character, my chosen profession is germane.

I bet there are children's books you don't like and that I love. What I would never do, though, is intentionally read a review I KNOW I would disagree with and then piss all over the author and the way he/she chose to express him/herself because I didn't agree. The whole point of writing a review is to express an opinion. I am sorry that my opinion isn't the same as yours and that my review appears to have deeply offended you.

And though I agree that this book could be a vehicle to teach empathy, repetition, etc, I feel there are far better books that do just that.

message 25: by Chickens (new)

Chickens McShiterson Dr. Seuss books. :)

message 26: by TheAngerDog (new)

TheAngerDog I agree with you. I found the book to be tedious and the writing style drove me insane to the point where I couldn't finish it. Not to mention the book took repetition to the next level where some chapters were dedicated to telling us what we already new. It honestly surprised me when I found out that so many people loved it (Don't get me wrong, I'm happy they liked it! I just don't get the appeal of the book). Took the words out of my mouth! :)

message 27: by Fawls13 (new)

Fawls13 All I can add is - give cauliflower a chance. If you could digest this book you can digest it. They have it in this shaved form now, like rice. It's actually a decent rice substitute. More earthy taste than rice. My two kids that like the cauliflower rice were out of their skulls bored with this book. My daughter who doesn't like the cauliflower rice loved this book. Correlation? Who knows. I do know she loves cats, so as anyone who lives with a cat lover understands there is an irrational attraction to any idiotic thing associated with them...hence The Underneath finds an audience.

As far as Axel, I think he did realize it eventually because he did stop wearing his hair in them.

message 28: by Rosa (new) - rated it 2 stars

Rosa Fawls13 wrote: "All I can add is - give cauliflower a chance. If you could digest this book you can digest it. They have it in this shaved form now, like rice. It's actually a decent rice substitute. More earthy t..."

I support and endorse your Underneath theory(ies?). Or rather, as someone who genuinely enjoys cauli-rice (sacrilegious given my heritage - sorry ancestors!), avoids cats and dogs (allergies), and hates this book, I suppose I'm actively living your truths.

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