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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The Underneath

Certainly one of the most memorable books from the spring lists is The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum)…already suggested by a couple of you in the last post. Monica Edinger posted earlier this year about its remarkable atmosphere, which is what I think makes the story linger, almost physically, in my memory. An unusual friendship is portrayed from perspectives both of innocence (Puck and Sabine) and experience (Ranger), as they struggle to survive in a place shaped by forces of history and emotion far beyond their grasp. Distinguished "interpretation of a theme or concept" jumps out to me first when I consider it against the Newbery criteria. Appelt’s narrative is rooted in the sensual present of whichever character she’s portraying and delivered in small chunks so that the experiences pile up gradually, allowing the young reader to digest each piece and build a complex structure that they can grasp.  Monica had a lot more to say on this one, as did Fuse#8. (Did you, and I missed it? Please put the URL in a comment–)

The clearly allegorical storyline, the otherworldly tone, even the cut size and illustrations, have all led adults to remark upon this story’s uncanny resemblance to The Tale of Despereaux, which won the Newbery in 2004, even though the plots and characters themselves are clearly disimilar.  However, since Despereaux is not eligible for this year’s award, it doesn’t enter into the discussions of this year’s Newbery committee members, who are to consider only eligible books pubilshed in this calendar year. That is, in their discussions The Underneath can be compared to other eligible titles, but not to The Tale of Despereaux…nor to any of Kathi Appelt’s previous books.  

I’m curious if anyone else was slightly unsettled, as I was, by the "mythology" of Grandmother Moccassin.  Are we to assume that this is an invented mythology? This is fiction, and Appelt doesn’t say anything in her note about it. She does say "I’m also grateful to the folk at Caddo Mounds State Park…for taking time to talk to me about the mysterious and wondrous Caddo, who inhabited the woodland areas of East Texas for thousands of years, who were master craftspeople and still are."  I’m not sure if that means the "mythology" is based in anything she was  told or not.  She has, of course, the right as an author to tell a fictional story, but by referring to "the Caddo," and through Small’s illustrations, there is reference to a real people.  (Note in the Newbery criteria that illustrations are not to be considered, unless they "distract," as they did for me here.)  I was just reading an essay this morning by Adrienne Rich called "Woman and bird," which appears in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (W.W. Norton, 1993).  On page 7 she says: "I am suspicious–first of all, in myself–of adopted mysticism, of glib spirituality, above all of white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases to vampirize American Indian, or African, or Asian, or other ‘exotic’ ways of understanding."   I am not accusing Appelt of this–but noting that this articulates my own suspicions about a lot of children’s literature these days. I don’t think enough of us are suspicious enough…so I try to compensate. I wonder: IS Appelt’s "mythology" in The Underneath based in a real people’s oral history, and if so, is it represented accurately and appropriately for the intended audience. This is something that I hope the Newbery committee follows up on. It folds back into the idea of "interpretation of a theme or concept."

We’re curious to hear what you think in particular about this title, looking at it in relation to the Newbery criteria. And please keep suggesting more titles that you think might be contenders. It’s helpful if you can give a little explanation of what you think makes it stand out.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I do not have this book but intend to order this for my middle school media center.

  2. EVA MITNICK says:

    Your comments about the mythology of Grandmother Moccassin are interesting. I didn’t see her as being related to any belief system of the Caddo, but rather as a magical being who has existed since time began and who has interacted with many different civilizations in the distant past (which means she doesn’t belong to just one mythology).
    This comment box won’t allow me to add a url, but I have reviewed The Underneath (which I found unsettling but powerful – like most folks!) at my blog Book Addiction –

  3. EVA MITNICK says:

    P.S. My feed reader can’t find a feed for this blog, and I didn’t see it listed in SLJ’s list of blogs. Help!

  4. Brian Kenney says:

    Sorry for the delay in RSS. We’ll have that available shortly, check back next week. Thanks.

  5. I have read The Underneath and I have read many many reviews of it as well. The marketing of this book–with kitty and puppy cover and illustrations that do not, for the most part, match the tone of the narrative, troubles me. This is a very grown up book with disturbing violence and the illustrations make it seem like a book for second graders.

  6. I thought it was a powerful book and I think the writing matches up to Newbery criteria. I do agree with the comment on the cover illustration–it seems all wrong for the book. The cover has you expect something totally different than what you read. But, the book, itself was amazing. I haven’t read much else this year that stands out like this for me.

  7. I felt this book was heavy handed and not at all aimed for children under 14. I’ll agree, though, that the atmosphere was well developed.

  8. An engaging read, but this one is for adults. I would not feel comfortable giving this to any child under fifteen.


    This book just absolutely left me cold, and I usually love animal stories. The writing was definitely sophisticated, but this is definitely not one of my favorites for this year.

  10. Walter Mayes says:

    No book is more divisive this year. I continue to get strong praise for the writing while also hearing negative, even adamant comments against the book in all my presentations, as evidenced by some of the earlier posts.

    I maintain that it is the brilliance of Appelt’s writing that pushes the limit for many, portraying the painful lives of the animals so heartrendingly that it makes the reading experience unthinkable for many animal lovers. If it did not do the job of telling the story so well, the content would not be an issue to many. Indeed, as I booktalk it, I am quite careful to let potential readers know that bad things happen in this book and that it might not be the right book for them. However, from a critical standpoint (and as far as the Newbery criteria are concerned), this is a book that stands with the very best of the year. I wonder if it is possible for committee members to divorce their emotional response to a book from their analysis of its literary merit. Oh, wait, I know it’s possible–I did it last year on the Printz.

    Still, I find the cover discussion simplistic, even though this is certainly not the only forum where the comment has come up. Really, just because there are drawings of animals on the cover does not make the book automatically for a younger audience. I have tested this with my students, and the sensitive animal lovers have mostly commented on the fact that the animals on the cover look “scared.” I think the cover serves the story well.

    I look forward to speaking on behalf of The Underneath in Oakland on January 11.

  11. This book does have some interesting and beautiful writing, but the cruelty factor in this story is extremely disturbing and I truly feel that that factor alone should disqualify this book.

  12. Laurie, how exactly would the cruelty factor, as you put it, disqualify the book under the Newbery criteria? Appropriatness of style? Interpretation of a theme or concept? You’re not the only one who’s spoken to this point in these comments, but I just point out that until you can couch your disturbance within the award criteria, it does not make a compelling argument.


    I think you could go point by point in the criteria and make a strong case for each one with this book. In fact, it might be impossible to talk about one without the others, and that’s part of the genius of this book. For example, the plot development is tied into theme, character, setting, and style. You have the multiple strands of narrative in two progressive plots that run side-by-side, one set 1000 years in the past and one set in the present. The narrative weaves in and out of characters’ minds and back and forth in time, which not only gives us insight into character but also gives readers the odd sensation of both movement and stagnation (I actually felt as though I were sitting in a boat being gently rocked as I was reading the book), as well as strong sense of the swampy setting. This also fits into one of the themes of the book — The Underneath — what lurks beneath the surface of a time, a place, or a character? Does it offer safety or danger?


    Nina, it terms of your question about Grandmother Moccasin’s mythology, I didn’t interpret it as being based on any kind of human mythology. It was just the way the world worked in the universe created by the author. I thought the inclusion of the Caddo people was just a depiction of the people who had lived on that same piece of land 1000 years earlier. I didn’t read it as some sort of Native mythology.

  15. Barbara Kerley says:

    Hi Nina and Sharon,

    First off, thanks so much for creating this blog — a wonderful resource for people like me who are fascinated with book discussions and the Newbery selection process.

    I had a question about something you said in your initial post on The Underneath (which I have on order at my library, but have not read yet).

    You wrote:

    “I wonder: IS Appelt’s “mythology” in The Underneath based in a real people’s oral history, and if so, is it represented accurately and appropriately for the intended audience. This is something that I hope the Newbery committee follows up on. It folds back into the idea of “interpretation of a theme or concept.”

    OK, me again. My question has to do with how the N cmte might “follow up” on this point, and how in general the cmte discusses any particular title — I understand that at some point in the process, cmte members often look at book reviews, blog comments, etc, but do they also do outside research on topics that might appear in a work of fiction? Or do you mean that you hope the cmte discusses this particular point as they share what they’ve gleaned from a careful reading of the text (only) itself. In other words, how far out is the net cast, when cmte members prepare to discuss a book? I’d be fascinated to learn more about the discussion process.


    Barb Kerley

  16. Darcy Pattison says:
  17. Children's librarian says:

    I think I’m one of the only people who feels this way, but this was not a well-written book. Think about it: what makes it well-written? The constant repetition was merely an attempt at poetic lyricism, but did it work? I don’t think so.

    I also don’t think it’s a book for kids: I think it’s a book for adults who like children’s literature. Why do I say that? Well, first the writing and secondly the slooooowness of the plot. I have a book group and I talk to kids at my library about books a lot. I know that many kids want books that at least have some sense of forward momentum in them. The constant switching of stories coupled with the writing style may be too confusing and annoying for the intended age group.

    Personally, I think appeal to children should factor much more highly in the award selection process than it does. I realize again that appeal to children is subjective, but I think in a book award for children’s books, shouldn’t the appeal to the intended audience be an important factor? I think too often committee members get overly concerned with the call for “exceptional” and stop thinking about a book’s appeal to its age group. And that is why I am concerned that “The Underneath” will win this year.

  18. I do agree with some of your points–I don’t think one can call a book “distinguished writing for children” if it has no appeal for children (I have this doubt about Trouble). I did think the book was effectively lyrical and mesmerizing. I’m sure others have comments on whether children they’ve known have liked this book. But how can the committee really judge a book’s appeal to kids? I even read a review of The Hunger Games that claimed this wasn’t a book kids would like, it was the kind of book grownups think kids will like (which I find preposterous, of course); and one reason it took A Wrinkle in Time so long to find a publisher was because the publishers didn’t think kids would be into it–but they still are, decades later. It’s an interesting point, and one I would like to explore, but I don’t really have any ideas about the answer.

  19. Monica Edinger says:

    For a take on child appeal, check out The Reading Zone’s post of October 2nd, titled, “Newbery Controversy.” Starting the fourth paragraph in, this 6th grade teacher describes reading aloud The Underneath to her students, their response, and more about it as a Newbery contender.

  20. children's librarian says:

    Monica– I read the post on The Reading Zone and while she does bring up some good points, she’s not pointing to what I’m specifically talking about. The kids that are in my current book group as well as the ones who were in my previous group, are all very advanced readers. They get good, descriptive writing and most of them appreciate it. But we can argue whether the writing is good or bad forever because what defines “good writing” is mostly subjective. However, I will say that constant repetition of phrases and lists of flora and fauna get tedious after a while. If Appelt had done this less frequently, I wouldn’t complain so much about the writing.

  21. children's librarian says:

    (Sorry to break this up, apparently, I’m wordy!) My main argument is whether this is really a book for children. What in this book, besides Ranger and the kittens, would appeal to children? I really think this book is better suited for young adults– it would be perfect in a high school English class– and adults who would understand all of the symbolism and not be turned off by the writing style. I think there are better books out there that talk about the same themes in this book in a much more “kid-friendly” way. The depth and the symbolism, and the story of Mother Moccasin in particular, elevate this book above a children’s book for me. This doesn’t mean that children’s books can’t be deep and symbolic, it just means that the way Appelt tried to integrate the two stories didn’t work. And I’m sure that there are better books this year that are well-written and would appeal to the intended age group. I’d also like to have someone explain why they feel the book is well-written since I think reviewers are getting caught up in the themes and the characters and tying their emotions for those in with their critique of the writing.

  22. What you find tedious, I just didn’t find tedious. I don’t know that there’s any more to it than that. To be honest, I wasn’t crazy about the themes OR the characters, but I did have to wait until I got out from under the spell of the writing to really see that.

  23. This is the first year my staff is doing a Mock Newbery discussion, which has made me think mcuh more critically about the books we’re considering than I have previously. One issue that has stood out most is how do we determine whether is book is a “children’s” or “YA” book. Is it simply because of the marketing? Is it because of the author’s previous writings? I honestly do not think The Underneath is a book written for children. It is an allegory that I can see high school students discussing in class (although they are too busy reading Our Mutual Friend to explore contemporary literature). Unless an astute adult reads and discusses this book with a child in the Newbery intended age range, I do not think he/she is likely to see beyond the brutality. I DO think the cover as significant and appears too “cutesy” for the content of the book. Of course, my view is that of a public librarian, where I see parents pay little attention to what their children are reading.

  24. A Kid’s Review:
    This book I found too be confusing and weird. I thought I was picking up a story of animals living in a life of abuse, and having to learn the methods of living in such a tough life, but I instead found a poetry book about half human, half reptile snakes that kissed hawk people. I didn’t understand most of it. The names were confusing and quite bland (Puck, Hawk Man) and though it was an interesting read, I do not recommend it for the fainthearted nor the easily confused.

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