Tuesday, February 8, 2011

Book of the Week: THE UNDERNEATH by Kathi Appelt

Today we are discussing The Underneath, which is a wonderful novel I highly recommend to anyone at any age and which was nominated for both the Newberry and the National Book award. On Thursday, we’ll have its author, the also wonderful Kathi Appelt right here at this very blog to face the 7 Questions. You may recall she was author Linda Benson's one choice for a writer's lunch. And Saturday—my how our cup runneth over—we will have Marietta Zacker of the Nancy Gallt Literary Agency to face the 7 Questions for Literary Agents. What a glorious time it is to be a Middle Grade Ninja!

Whew. I’m all out of plugs, so let’s talk about The Underneath. It’s really, really good. You should read it if you haven’t already, and if you’re an aspiring writer studying the techniques of better writers to make yourself better ninja style, you definitely need to read this book. There are techniques employed in this novel I have not seen in another middle grade book and a story that’s not completely like anything else I've read. So much so, that I’m going to dispense with the review so we can get started on a discussion of craft: The Underneath is awesome. Read it. Review concluded.

The structure of The Underneath is one fairly common in adult novels, but rarely used in middle grade fiction. Instead of following one likable character on a quest from that character’s fixed perspective (90% or more of middle grade fiction), Appelt follows multiple characters, each with their own story and goal until their paths intersect. So who is the true protagonist of The Underneath? I think that’s up for debate.

The most likely candidate is Puck, a likable calico kitten (how could a calico kitten be unlikable. The story opens with Puck’s mother being ditched at the side of the road by thoughtless humans we, of course, hate. Puck’s mother, you’ll notice I’m not using her name—more on that in a minute, finds shelter in the underneath, which is actually a space underneath the house of a crazy hillbilly named Gar Face. Gar Face keeps Ranger, a hound dog with a heart of gold, chained in the yard, and Ranger and Puck’s mother become friends. Puck’s mother gives birth to Puck and his sister Sabine and the three cats and the dog form a family.

Most books would focus on the animals and their attempts to avoid the evil Gar Face and leave it at that. And why not? The kittens are cute and though they talk and have subtle human characteristics, they are like the rabbits in Richard Adam’s Watership Down, true to their animal nature. Their thoughts and actions are the thoughts and actions of animals as Appelt sees them rather than human characters in cute, fury form. Of course, we’ll have to find an actual talking cat that is also literate to find out how close Appelt is to describing life as a cat, but I’ll wager she’s pretty close:)

The Underneath spends some time with the cats and Ranger and Appelt builds our sympathy for them, but their time is shared equally with Gandma Mocassin (love the name), an ancient snake goddess who lives in the forest, and even Gar Face, whose back-story is told from his perspective with not a cute talking animal in sight. There’s also an alligator king and a hawk man and all sorts of other characters and through events in the story our happy family of cats and dog are split up and their stories are told from different perspectives. Therefore, in most cases each chapter is told from the perspective of a different character from the previous chapter and is part of its own seemingly unrelated story.

If you’ll humor me and imagine a protagonist and their plot as a spinning plate, most authors choose to spin only one or two plates and readers are impressed enough. Appelt is spinning plates on both hands, her feet, she’s got a pole on her nose and spinning a plate at the end of it, and she’s maybe got a plate on each shoulder. I’m trusting you've seen performers do this and are following the metaphor. As in such a performance, the trick is to keep all those plates spinning and the excitement for the viewer is in knowing that if Appelt makes one misstep or loses her balance, one if not all of those spinning plates can come crashing down. It’s something to see, Esteemed Reader, and the reason why if you write for children, you need to read this book and see it done.

It takes a masterful writer to pull this off and there are broken shards throughout the literary world from writers who have tried and lost their balance. If done correctly by a writer like Appelt, the result is a layered and complex story told from multiple viewpoints and sharing the perspective of most if not all of the characters with the reader. If done incorrectly, the result could be that the reader enjoys one strand of the story, but is disappointed when the book cuts away to another character the reader doesn't like and only suffers through to get back to the story he/she is enjoying. If there are more chapters about the character the reader doesn't like than the one the reader does like, he or she may put the book down.

It’s a risky business and the key for success is that the reader must be involved in all of the stories and be invested in all of the characters. It’s hard enough to get readers invested in one protagonist and one story! Also, I have length issues sometimes with a simple one-character-one-plot structure. The Ninja has tried this spinning-plate type of novel only once and the result was an 800-plus page manuscript that caused an actual literary agent (not one of the wonderful agents who have appeared here) to actually laugh in my face when I inquired about representation for it. Represent it? She wouldn't even read it. Sigh. Which is to say that the Ninja likely fell on his butt and busted all of his plates—but I got back up, and wrote another shorter manuscript with only one plate, so don’t you worry about me.

It helps that Appelt’s chapters are short. Her prose is quick and at times reminded me just a little of Ernest Hemingway  You won’t find a lot of frilly description in Appelt’s prose, which is not to imply simplicity, only pace. Here's a fun example:

BUT BEFORE PUCK and Sabine could be clever and brave, they had to be… kittens! Here was Sabine, hiding behind the old wooden fishing traps, the same gray color as her coat.
Quiet. Oh so quiet.
Sabine made herself small. Oh so small. As small as a mouse. As small as a cricket. As small as a flea.
She crouched down low. Oh so low.
Her paws tingled. Her ears twitched. Her tail switched.
Patient. Oh so patient… until… Puck…
Unaware. Oh so unaware.

Most chapters in The Underneath are one to four pages long, which is a good idea in most any middle grade fiction book. But it’s an especially good idea if you’re going to be brave like Appelt and tackle a story from multiple perspectives. I could spend time talking also about how much I love Appelt’s use of white space  Short sentences, paragraphs, and chapters are read fast. Reading fast builds a sense of accomplishment in a reader and as the pages turn they soon find themselves far enough in that they may as well finish, even in the case of a book not as well written as Appelt’s.

I could talk about those things, but I've talked about them in other reviews and I see we are running long because I plugged my wife’s writing and I have passages to share and something else I want to discuss. You know how much I obsess over the first sentence in a book because I know it’s a sentence that got an agent, an editor, a reader, and ultimately a Ninja to read on. Here is the first sentence from The Underneath:

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.

It would take a reader with the heart of Gar Face not to feel sympathy at once and not to read the sentence that follows. But the thing is that cat is Puck’s mother and she doesn't have a name (I told you I’d get back to it). Ranger, Puck, Sabine, and even Gar Face all have names, but the mother of the kittens, one fourth of the family living in The Underneath, does not. She is only ever referred to as the calico cat, which is why—minor spoiler from here on out—I knew she was toast from about the third chapter.

I won’t tell you how she dies, but her death comes at about 70 pages in and sets a major piece of the plot in motion. I have been thinking about Appelt’s choice not to name the cat that dies since I read The UnderneathI've been turning it over in my head. The impact of not naming the cat is that she is less of a character in the story and when she dies the reader’s empathy is not with her but with her children, who are main characters and whom we will be following to the end. Our sorrow comes from the kittens we know and love being left alone rather than the horrible, but heroic death of a character we love because Appelt intentionally keeps us at a distance from her. This is a conscious choice and it has a calculated impact.

It’s the right choice for this book and yet I wonder. Why not name the cat? Why not make her a character the reader also likes and feels empathy for. Then the reader will be truly shocked at her death instead of anticipating it and might cry for her as well as for her kittens. The Ninja loves to try to make readers cry and I totally would have hammed up Momma cat’s death for some easy tears. I might even have had her whisper “Earn this,” Saving Private Ryan style because I love cheese.

Of course the reader would be disoriented and perhaps even irritated by the death of a beloved character so early in the story. Parents might stop reading the book to their kids right there and even if they didn’t, their focus would be on poor Momma Cat rather than her kittens, which is where it needs to be. At the end of the day, Momma Cat's death is a plot device for other characters and is best written as it is. Choices like this are why Appelt was honored by The Newberry and The National Book Award and the Ninja runs a blog:) Still, it’s fun to pick at choices like this in a book and consider the alternative. No doubt Appelt did and by working backwards we can deduce her reasoning, which is why I study these books in the first place(that and I love good stories).

That’s going to do it for this week, Esteemed Reader. Make sure to come back by on Thursday to see Kathi Appelt face the 7 Questions and on Saturday when we’ll be visited by literary agent Marietta Zacker. It’s good to be back, Esteemed Reader, and join me in the coming weeks as we are going to be discussing some wonderful books and meeting some wonderful writers, and God willing, agents. But for now, as is my custom, I’ll leave you with some of my favorite passages from The Underneath:

She had never heard a song like it, all blue in its shape, blue and tender, slipping through the branches, gliding on the morning air. She felt the ache of it.

Scavengers; once he caught one in a crab trap and kept it there, hidden, watched it slowly die from hunger and thirst. Watched it while it twisted against the wooden slats of the trap, desperate in its hunger, fierce in its desperation.

Puck was paws down better than Possum. (it annoys me when writers use hands down when writing from an animal’s perspective and Appelt knows better—MGN)

Maybe this house sat for too long before Gar Face moved in. But if you looked at it from just a few feet away, if you could get close enough without Gar Face aiming his rifle at you and snarling like a wolf, you would swear that it was sinking into the ground of its own accord, as if the only way to escape from its terrible inhabitant was to disappear into the earth.

STANDARD DISCLAIMER: Book of the Week is simply the best book I happened to read in a given week. There are likely other books as good or better that I just didn’t happen to read that week. Also, all reviews here will be written to highlight a book’s positive qualities. It is my policy that if I don’t have something nice to say online, I won’t say anything at all (usually). I’ll leave you to discover the negative qualities of each week’s book on your own.


  1. I cannot WAIT to read this one. It's been sitting in my stack forever and will now be moved to the top!


  2. The fact that your blog & this post popped to the top of my blog roll this morning has made for a wonderful start to the day. Now I have to go and investigate Mrs. Ninja and the Dark Tower.
    Good to see you back.

  3. Thanks for reviewing THE UNDERNEATH, Rob. It remains one of my favorite novels of all time - the language and the story and the rhythm of it just haunt me (not too mention I'm such a big sucker for animal books.) And yes, I'd still like to lunch with Ms. Appelt - we would talk language and literature and of course, cats :-)

  4. The Underneath is on my to-read pile for 2011. Loved your review, I'm excited to learn from her technique.

  5. Glad you're back and it sounds like you've got lots of good things planned.

    Thanks for the great review. I love the plate analogy.

    That was so mean of the agent to laugh at you. There would have been a nice way to tell you it was too long.

  6. Excellent blog/posts! Thank you for sharing this good info! It coul be really useful for any writer too!
    Yet, don't you think every author should strive to create new creatures, the classical, öld like vampires, elves, dwarfs, wizards with sharp hats, fairies, princesses, kings, etc. are too ordinary already? That's why I try some new in some of my books (Tale Of The Rock Pieces, The Opposite Of Magic, Kids'Funny Business, etc (weightless korks, glowing, living balls, Brown faces, fiery men, one-eyeds, night fruit, rock pieces, fish-keepers, etc...), do you think I'm right?
    And I guess you use sites like zazzle.com, cafepress. com, fiverr? They could be a good way to promote your blog and to help "remove" stupidity in the streets like headlines on t-shirts, fridge-magnets, cups, etc: My Boyfriend kisses Better Than Yours, FBI - female body inspector, etc. Not everything we see and think of should be about sex, right? It would be much better if there were more nice pictures of mythical creatures, good thoughts, poems from fantasy genre, etc? I'm allanbard there, I use some of my illustrations, thoughts, poems from my books (like: One can fight money only with money, Even in the hotest fire there's a bit of water, etc). Best wishes! Let the wonderful noise of the sea always sounds in your ears! (a greeting of the water dragons'hunters - my Tale Of The Rock Pieces).


Thanks for stopping by, Esteemed Reader! And thanks for taking the time to comment. You are awesome.