I really enjoyed my re-read of both Highway Cats (Janet Taylor Lisle) and The Underneath (Lathi Appelt) and made a point of re-reading them one after the other.
For two books with non-human characters as leads, they sure are different. I would argue that Lisle creates very human like characters out of her animals – with all the flaws, hopes, and promise of a human life. While there are some scary moments in the book, Highway Cats is also full of humor and is a classic underdog (or undercat, in this case) tale told well. I think the strength of development of the characters over such a small story is one of the book’s most distinguishing features. A disfigured Siamese cat who has taken to wearing various pieces of garbage over her head to hide her hideousness finds connection and peace with one of the hardest toughest cats around with the unknowing help of some potentially magical kittens. Interestingly the kittens themselves are never named, and never develop distinguished personalities from each other. They are more of a catalyst for the other characters to grow and change and for the story to move forward.
This book, as Nina mentions in the comments of her post, serves a great example of a "lighter" book being quite distinguished.
The Underneath on the other had is dark, heavy, somber and mystical. While the animals are clearly antropormophized, they have, to me at least, more the feel of actual animals – as if the reader were stepping inside the heads of a cat, two kittens, a dog, an alligator, a moccassin, etc. The kittens have the innnocent naivety of a child until something tragic happens to take that away. The audience for this book has been a concern for some people, but I think it is fair to say that it fits squarely into the audience required by the Newbery and is clearly distinguished, even if it’s never destined to be popular. It is a challenging read. Painful, at times, and sad. But this just shows the strength of the writing – the empathy that a reader feels for these characters is palpable. They are all in pain, even Gar Face comes from pain.
Appelt chooses her words so carefully, especially when describing anguish.
"Wrong was here.
Wrong sat on the ground in front of her.
Wrong kept the birds from singing.
It crept up her legs and into her chest." – The Underneath, page 168
"It’s a soft-sounding word, ‘never,’ but its velvety timbre can’t hide its sharp edges. Especially to a small cat who has broken the rules and conjured the word in the first place…. Never pressed down on him. It grabbed him by the neck and shook him. He sucked in a deep breath, sucked in all that never and started to sneeze. Never filled his nose, his eyes, his soaking fur." – page 101, The Underneath
And the contrast between that and the more playful kittens is extreme, written in a completely different tone without the story becoming disjointed.
"Sabine made herself small. Oh so small. As small as a mouse. As small as 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.
Attack!!!" –The Underneath, page 56
Oh, the Highway Cats kittens play too. But it feels very different to me. I feel like I’m watching them, but I don’t feel like I’m actually in their heads. Both different ways of sharing a similar thing.
"The kits were acting especially kittenish that day, hiding under vines and leaping out to chase butterflies between the graves." – Highway Cats, page 38
It’ll be interesting to see how others read and compared each of these books, similar in some ways, and so different in others.