Book Review and Author Interview: The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

What will you find if you go deep into the piney woods of East Texas? There is a tilting house that reeks of old bones, fish, and dried skins. In that shabby house is a hard-edged and bitter man who drinks hard-edged and bitter drinks. He is called Gar Face because his face resembles the prehistoric half fish, half alligator known as the gar. Underneath the porch of that house is Ranger, an old and injured hound chained to a post, with a calico cat and her silver twin kittens named Puck and Sabine. Underneath a dying tree by a creek is a lamia - half serpent, half woman - who has been trapped in a jar for 1,000 years. She is best known as Grandmother Moccasin. Grandmother Moccasin has been seeking revenge for more than 1,000 years. Deep underneath the water of the muddy Bayou Tartine is the Alligator King. He is thousands of years old, a hundred feet long, and always, always hungry.

What does Gar Face want more than anything else in the world? How did Ranger become best buddies with the calico cat and papa hound to Puck and Sabine? Why does Grandmother Moccasin hiss and spin in hatred? What is the Alligator King waiting for?

What are the places, yearnings, and other creatures that connect these characters? How do the characters all come together? Ahh, to find out, you have to read The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (with drawings by David Small).

Kathi Appelt is an astonishingly good storyteller. I found her forest setting and its inhabitants endlessly interesting and firmly established. There are herons, bald eagles, and cranes. Bullfrogs, squirrels, beavers, foxes, rabbits, crawdads. Different snakes like massasaugas, cottonmouths, corals, and copperheads. There are even trees like winged elms, blackjacks, and water oaks that keep time and tales. And so, so much more. The tone, mood, and atmosphere of the novel were striking and amazing. While reading the novel, I felt as if I were riding on a sentient zephyr that was taking me along and guiding me through the adventures of Puck, Grandmother Moccasin, and Gar Face. At the same time I felt as if I were in the Deep American South during a sultry summer afternoon. On someone's porch sipping lemonade and listening to a wise, old man or woman tell Puck's, Grandmother Moccasin's, and Gar Face's stories.

With language that uses repetition and rhythm in a simple, yet sophisticated way, Kathi Appelt expertly crafted and intertwined the stories in The Underneath. Here is a poetic and bittersweet exploration of love and family, as well as a poetic and unflinching exploration of loneliness and hatred.

The pace of The Underneath may be too slow for some. Its enchanted creatures and other mystical elements are beautiful, but seem superfluous to the novel. Still, I have no doubt that animal and nature lovers under the age of ten will love listening to this novel read aloud to them. And I have no doubt that animal and nature lovers aged ten and above will love reading this novel on their own.

[Exciting edit on Jan. 26: The Underneath has just won a Newbery Honor!!! The Underneath is EXCELLENT literary children's fiction. It totally deserves the Newbery Honor.]

Are you curious about the writer behind The Underneath? Read on for my conversation with Kathi Appelt about reading, writing, and sharing children's and young adult literature.

Kathi, I think your debut novel, The Underneath, is beautiful. I am so glad to have you here!

You are the author of over twenty books for children and young adults (picture books, poetry, non-fiction, short stories, and your debut novel). What motivates you to write for children and young adults?

To be honest, I don't see myself as writing for one audience or another. My hope is always that my stories have appeal for all audiences, even those that are "packaged" in a form that looks like it should only be for youngsters. I believe that we all have an innate urge to tell stories. We are the story animals; as far as we know, we're the only creatures who tell them. We know that other animals communicate--they send out warnings, they mark trees, etc. But it's humans who get together in groups of two or more to share our stories. We're built for storytelling, and we've been doing it ever since we began to gather around campfires back in cave dwelling days.

That said, I do keep my child audiences in mind when I write. It's important to me that my stories recognize the yearnings, the sensibilities, the interests, of my young readers.

But here's the thing--one of the reasons I became a writer for kids in the first place was because of the wonderful experience I had reading to my own sons as they grew up. It seemed to me that whenever we sat down to share a book, we created what I think of as a "magic circle." Within that circle, with the story in the center, there were no longer so many separations--no age barriers, no grade barriers, no ability barriers. The trials and tribulations of the day melted away. We were joined together through the story itself. We shared emotions, we shared interests, we were caught together in the grip of the story. It was a kind of enchantment. I truly believe that story has that power--to bring us together at our human level, where we're more united than divided. I love that.

So, always, regardless of whether my story is targeted toward two year olds or fifteen year olds, (and really I think those age targets, the ones that are printed on the books themselves, are largely ambiguous), I hope that there is something in the book that can appeal to just about anyone.

Of course, it's important in the case of very young children, that a caring adult take a look at a book first before sharing it with a little one. That's our jobs as parents and teachers, isn't it? But I also support the right of kids to read what they need and want to read. Too often I think we look at books and make the claim, "that's certainly not for kids," I've even been guilty of that myself. Years ago, I felt that way about Lois Lowry's The Giver. It came out when my older son was in the 4th grade, and when I read it I really felt that it wasn't a book that he would like. But to my surprise, he loved it. Henceforth, I've stopped saying that unless the book has been tested out by kids themselves. How are we to know what kids like unless we give them a chance to read it? And this sentiment also, I think, too often turns "kids" into some amorphous entity that assumes that all kids like the same things. We don't do that with adults, so I don't think we should do that with kids either.

Geez, why am I going on about this? I think it's because I just read Susan Patron's wonderful essay in the LA Times and I so clearly identified with it, both as a former child reader who loved complex and thought-provoking novels and as a parent who loved reading those same books to my kids. Here's the link to that article.

So, in a nutshell, why do I write for kids and young adults? Because I have stories to tell, all of us do. I don't think it's more or less than that.

Do you have a particular writing process or any writing rituals?

Years ago I made a commitment that I would find at least five minutes every day to write. I've never broken that commitment, even if the five minutes is spent writing in my journal or making my grocery list. As long as pen is on the paper or fingers are on the keyboard, I count it.

What is your definition of a “bad writing day”? How do you deal with bad writing days?

Hmm . . . I've never really thought about classifying my writing days into bad or good or anything else. I've never thought of writing vs. non-writing days. I write every day, every single day. Do I have moments of frustration? Absolutely. Do I often feel humbled in the face of a story or a character? All the time. But I see those as part of the overall process. I write, therefore I am.

You teach at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, in the MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults program. Does your teaching affect your writing in any way? (And whoa, thank you for sharing this picture of your dorm room at Vermont College!)

I know that I'm a better writer because I'm also a teacher. I learn so much from my students, I'm inspired by them. And what's wonderful about the program at VCFA is the community itself. It's a lot like the description I mentioned above--a magic circle. Only in the case of the MFA program the circle is expanded and enlarged, but always story is at the heart of it. Our common goal is to really examine the story, and that includes the reasons for telling it, the impetus behind it, and then looking at how to best tell it. When looking at stories from all angles, from inside out and back in again, all of us emerge as better writers. And better teachers too.

And of course, being in the company of my faculty mates is also inspiring. I work with some of the most wonderful authors in our industry and that fact alone encourages me to work even harder, to keep my chops up so to speak. It's a privilege to work with such a talented crew.

Let us not forget as well that writing is a basically solitary act for the most part; a community is important just for our mental health. I love coming together twice a year with my colleagues and students. It fills me right up. As important as solitude is in the life of a writer, being with other people is a necessary thing too. Keeps us from going off the deep end.

What were the influences and inspirations (literary or otherwise) you drew from when writing The Underneath?

I feel like every book I ever read and wrote played a part in writing The Underneath. I drew from every cell in my body, every organ and platelet were needed to get through the writing process. Along the way I turned to my friends for advice, for commentary, for hugs. I turned to an amazing mentor, Dennis Foley, who basically kept pushing me along, and to my smart agents and editor who believed in the book from the start.

But maybe, if I had to point to one singular text that spoke to me it would be Kipling's The Jungle Book, not so much for the story itself, but for the heart of it, that heart that recognized the deep longings that arise from within ourselves, regardless of our exterior appearances or social realms, and then realizes the very essence of our mutual connectedness. There is one spot, in particular, that captures this. The animals, in a heartbreaking moment, look at Mowgli, their adopted human, who is leaving the safe nest he’s been raised in, and state clearly, “we be lonely without thee, little brother.” The animals knew something that we humans don’t want to see: that they had to let their man-child go in order to save his life. Children's literature has this power, with its elasticity, it’s ability to push them out and pull them in, to let our children go, to give them characters who look like them, who are facing the same things they are, who feel as deeply as they do, and yet it breaks our hearts to get out of their way. As adults, we are fearful of our own hearts, aren't we, and so for the most part we tend to turn to literature that is "safe," that won't call upon our hearts to break. It's way too scary. I think we gravely underestimate our children when we do that.

I told my agent that I wanted to write a story that would "crack open the heart." In the writing of it, however, I realized that I would have to crack open my own heart, and so as I wrote I drew upon this moment of Kipling's--to understand that "we be lonely," but that at the end of the day we would fall back upon the love that was always there from the beginning.

What do you want young readers to take away from The Underneath?

I want them to know that they always have the choice to turn toward the light, that no matter their circumstances, they can turn away from darkness. I want them to know that they can move beyond the confines of whatever underneath they are experiencing, and that all of us, even the smallest among us, can make enormous differences.

What are some of your favorite experiences so far from book signings, school visits, interviews, and other promotional activities for The Underneath?

(Kathi at the Texas Book Festival with Kaylen, a student who wants to be an author too.)

This past fall, I had the wonderful opportunity to visit with two fifth grade classes in Farmington, NM. The public library there--an amazing facility run by an amazing staff, especially their community liaison Flo Trujillo--sponsored my visit. I spent a couple of hours with the students and their teachers. Those kids were completely prepared for me, they had read the book, loved the book, and they asked amazing questions. Truly, it was a visit that I'll never forget.

I also recently got a letter from a teacher in Maine that made me hum. She's a 3rd/4th grade teacher and she had read the story out loud to her students. I'm just going to quote her here: "I have been teaching for 28 years and have rarely found a book that has had such an impact on my students. Your novel has everything in it a child loves: magic, mythology, a horribly BAD character, characters in moral conflict and sweet, adorable good characters with strengths and weaknesses." But the best part of her letter was this: "They really hated Gar Face and devised ways to do him in at recess. When he finally met his demise, they leaped out of their seats and danced around the room cheering (no kidding!). I have to say I enjoyed that." Her letter validated everything I had hoped for in the book, in the story.

So, both cases I suppose, were huge strokes to my ego. I confess it. And if I were a bigger person, they might not have meant so much to me, but I'm not, so I'm hanging onto them.

And of course, the whole National Book Award event was thrilling. I still feel as though I'm shaking the glitter out of my hair.

This is me with two of the students at the National Book Awards Teen Press Conference in NYC. I wish I knew their names, but they are writers too. They gave me a copy of their own anthology that was hot off the presses. I'm lucky that they autographed it for me.

What are your favorite children's and young adult books?

Missing May, by Cynthia Rylant, and Bridge to Terabithia, by Katherine Paterson are two books that I don't think I could live without. I return to them often, always with the question, "how did she do it?" whenever I open their pages. I actually do the same thing with Louis Sachar's Holes and Kimberly Willis Holt's Keeper of the Night.

In the picture book department, I love Skippyjon Jones, by Judy Schachner, In the Night Kitchen, by Maurice Sendak, and Make Way for Ducklings by Robert McClosky. I just don't think any child should grow up without those three books.

Non-fiction: Race, by Marc Aronson. There Might be Giants, by Diane Applebaum and Buddy, by Anne Bustard. Also, anything by Elizabeth Partridge.

What book would you like your work to match or surpass (in terms of writing, impact, popularity, sales, or awards)?

Where the Wild Things Are, by Maurice Sendak. Could you get any higher than that?

What children's or young adult books are you reading now?

My current favorite is Cynthia Leitich Smith's new novel called Eternal. Wow! I've never been a huge reader of gothic fantasy. I can usually scare myself just fine without help. And Cyn's book is scary. But it's also filled with light. The story has two main characters--a vampire and an angel. It's a great read, seriously. Tim Wynne Jones has a new book too, The Uninvited, which kept me on the edge of my seat. I literally couldn't put it down. So I didn't. The mystery of it, the setting, the language all work together to create a book that shines.

Picture book wise, there's a new book just about ready to come out, by Rebecca Kai Dotlich called Bella and Bean, that makes my heart sing. It's about friends and poetry and how the two don't have to be separate. The art is just beautiful--Aileen Leijten is the illustrator. It's a book that is full of wonder. Another book that flew under the radar, but that deserves a broader audience is Little Red Fish by Tae-Eun Yoo. It works on so many levels, both in the text and in the art, but at its heart is its nod to the imagination and what can happen inside the pages of a book.

I'm currently reading Masterpiece by Elise Broach. Who ever thought you could successfully combine beetles with art? It's ingenious.

Another book that I want to recommend, also ready to emerge, is called The Chosen One by Carol Lynch Williams. It's set somewhere in the American Southwest, in the desert, in a fictional enclave that resembles one of the fundamentalist Mormon offshoots. Wow. It's powerful, stirring, brave. And the language is so so soulful. It's a book to savor, a challenging book, and one that is going to call to all of our inner angels.

On the top of my stack is M.T. Anderson's second part to Octavian Nothing.

EVERY SINGLE PERSON in the USA, and maybe the world, should read these books. Yes.

(Kathi with Cynthia Leitich Smith, in San Antonio for the SA Express Book Festival in November 2008.)

(Left to right: Kathi, John Green, Laurie Halse Anderson, and M.T. Anderson at NCTE in San Antonio, November 2008.)

What are you looking forward to professionally in 2009?

I'm right in the middle of my next novel, tentatively called Keeper. I've finished the earliest drafts, but it still has miles to go, so my main goal this year is to get it wrapped up. I'm also doing some traveling, visiting schools.

And I can't resist asking this... If you were to visit the Philippines, would you a) visit white sand beaches and underground caves, go sailing, go snorkeling and scuba diving, etc.; or b) check out the natural wonders above ground, like the Taal Volcano, the Banaue Rice Terraces, and the Chocolate Hills. Why? :o)

Shoot, I'd try to do it all--except the underground caves part and scuba diving.

Kathi, thank you for visiting Into the Wardrobe and sharing so many of your ideas and experiences!

Recommended links: For an in-depth, behind-the-scenes look at the writing of The Underneath, click here and here to read Becky Laney's interview with Kathi at Becky's Book Reviews.


Nymeth said…
"How are we to know what kids like unless we give them a chance to read it? And this sentiment also, I think, too often turns "kids" into some amorphous entity that assumes that all kids like the same things. We don't do that with adults, so I don't think we should do that with kids either."

I like her already!

Fantastic interview, and the book sounds like something I'd really enjoy.
Tarie said…
Nymeth - I knooow, Kathi has such wise words about children and books! :o)
Wonderful interview. Kathi's love for children's literature sparkles. Thanks so much.
Tarie said…
Hi, Donna! Thank you, too! Isn't Kathi just great? :o) Have you read The Underneath? What did you think of it?
Tarie, I haven't, but intend to. I was privileged to take Kathi's workshops at Chautauqua and talk to her off and on during the week. Very inspiring - and fun, too!
Tarie said…
Donna, a workshop under Kathi Appelt? Whoa!
vicki said…
great interview Tarie!

Btw, I tagged you! =)
Tarie said…
Thanks so much, Vicki! :o)
The Book Chook said…
Great review, Tarie, you certainly have me intrigued (much more than just reading an award was won, by the way!).
Tarie said…
Hi, Susan! Aww, thank you so much. I don't think The Underneath is for everyone. (Which book is anyway?) But it certainly has a good story (three stories intertwined actually) AND it is good literary fiction. While reading The Underneath, I was blown away by Kathi's writing style and writing techniques.
The Book Chook said…
Tarie, that came across in your review and that's what made me want to check out The Underneath. I love it when writers use language creatively and cleverly, but not at the expense of telling a good story. Seems like Kathi did both.