Kathi Appelt is a first time novelist, but you wouldn’t know it. Her Newbery honor winner The Underneath reminds me of someone telling a folk tale, a tale with a history and meaning that goes back a long long way.
Appelt’s writing has a way of sounding very familiar (she repeats a lot of phrases, sometimes with small variations) and very unusual at the same time. This dichotomy may come from the serious nature of the subject matter, starting with the very first sentence about the saddest thing in life. The saddest thing in life, you may or may not know, is a calico cat who is about to have kittens and has just been abandoned by the side of the road. What Appelt trades for such heavy stuff, including some very very mean characters, is a weight that fills out and gives shape to her other theme in the book: the place of love and hope in the story of survival. This book, even though honored as a Newbury shortlister, is perfect for older kids. The characters are somewhat archetypal, but it is very clearly that everyone makes their own choices, and there is always a cost to what you choose to do. With its deceptively simple frame of writing and anthropomorphized animals, The Underneath harkens back to something simpler about the world, but all Kathi Appelt really did was strip away distractions from a story that communicates something very true and powerful about life and the choices we make in it.