The Underneath

Overview

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.

An abandoned calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the achingly lonely howl of a chained up, abused hound dog deep in the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate. They are an unlikely pair, about to become an unlikely family. Ranger urges the cat to hide ...

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Overview

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.

An abandoned calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the achingly lonely howl of a chained up, abused hound dog deep in the bayou. She dares to find him in the forest and the hound dares to befriend this cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate. They are an unlikely pair, about to become an unlikely family. Ranger urges the cat to hide underneath the porch, to raise Sabine and Puck there because Gar-Face, the man living inside the house, will surely use her or her kittens as alligator bait should he find them. But, they are safe in the underneath...as long as they stay in the underneath.

Kittens, however, are notoriously curious creatures. And one kitten's one moment of curiosity sets off a chain of events that is astonishing, remarkable, and enormous in its meaning. In the tradition of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Flannery O'Connor, and Carson McCullers, Kathi Appelt spins a harrowing yet keenly sweet tale about the power of love (and its opposite, hate), the fragility of happiness — and the importance of making good on your promises.

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Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly

On the page, Appelt's first novel, about abused animals and set in a Deep South swamp, reads like it might be spoken with a pronounced twang. Zackman's interpretation, however, is so mellifluous that it sounds like a lullaby. That smooth delivery strikes a discordant note with the material, a story that braids three dark narrative strands: the vodka-swilling Gar Face's battle with the 100-foot-long Alligator King; Gar Face's abused, chained hound dog's ill-fated shepherding of a mother cat and her kittens; and the thousand-year imprisonment of Grandmother Moccasin, a serpent so selfish she resents her daughter falling in love. The even-keel delivery also makes it hard to keep track as the story shifts among the myriad points of view, which include those of the villain, a family of shape-shifters, various animals and sentient trees. Appelt's stylistic choice to use repetition as a construct-"This cat, this feline, this creature he is supposed to hate..."-makes for a monotonous audio experience, and her use of words such as "goldy" (to describe sunshine) makes this disquieting book sound precious. Ages 9-12. Simultaneous release with the S&S/Atheneum hardcover. (May)

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Children's Literature
AGERANGE: Ages 8 to 12.

An abandoned calico cat finds unlikely shelter under a porch with Ranger, an old hound. Once the calico gives birth to twin kittens, the foursome bond tightly as a family. However, Ranger's owner, Gar Face, is an abusive alcoholic. Both Ranger and the calico warn kittens Puck and Sabine never to wander from the safety of the place they call "The Underneath." The adults tell the kittens about the dangers of getting caught in front of Gar Face's gun, as the human is a cold-hearted trapper who skins the animals he kills and then trades their pelts for alcohol. One morning, Puck follows his playful young instincts and plays with the sun's rays. This leads to the capture and attempted drowning of both Puck and his mother by Gar Face. The hunter's obsession with capturing the Alligator King, an ancient resident of the bayous near his home eventually places Sabine in danger when the human decides to use the tiny kitten as bait. The Alligator King has a long history, one that is connected to the shape-shifting Grandmother Moccasin, her daughter Night Song, and other lives from a thousand years ago, including the Caddo people, Night Song's husband Hawk Man, and their unnamed daughter. Although this long circular narrative's complex, sometimes-overlapping character histories could prove to be difficult for younger readers and the events are sometimes quite ugly, the prose is breathtakingly beautiful. Many characters make seemingly wrong choices, but all are presented with chances to redeem themselves--and make amends for their past choices to follow paths of hate--by choosing to trust in and/or act through love. Possible themes for discussion include parental abuse,animal abuse, conservation, history, mythology, alternative families, and bullying. Reviewer: Jennifer Wood

Kirkus Reviews
When fate separates them, an old hound dog and two foster kittens survive the dangers of the bayou to find one another. Seeking shelter, a homeless pregnant cat responds to the "bluesy" baying of a hound named Ranger who lives chained under the porch of a shack in the woods of the East Texas bayou. He happily shares the Underneath with the cat and her two kittens, Sabine and Puck. The kittens are safe from Ranger's evil master Gar Face as long as they remain hidden, but Puck ventures out "straight into the terrible hands of Gar Face," who does his best to drown both the curious kitten and his mother. Somehow Puck escapes after promising his dying mother he will find Sabine and free Ranger, but he's on his own in a bayou teeming with mysterious creatures. Aided by Small's lively illustrations, Appelt intricately weaves these animals' ancient stories into Puck's survival saga to produce a magical tale of betrayal, revenge, love and the importance of keeping promises. (Fiction. 8-12)
From the Publisher
"A mysterious and magical story; poetic yet loaded with suspense." — Louis Sachar, Newbery Medal-winning author of Holes

"The Underneath is as enchanting as a hummingbird, as magical as the clouds." — Cynthia Kadohata, Newbery Medal-winning author of Kira-Kira

"Rarely do I come across a book that makes me catch my breath, that reminds me why I wanted to be a writer — to make of life something beautiful, something enduring. The Underneath is a book of ancient themes — love and loss and betrayal and redemption — woven together in language both timeless and spellbinding. A classic." — Alison McGhee, author of the New York Times bestselling Someday

"Kathi Appelt's novel, The Underneath, reads like a ballad sung." — Ashley Bryan, Hans Christian Anderson Award Nominee and Three-Time Coretta Scott King Award Medalist

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780743572088
  • Publisher: Simon & Schuster Audio
  • Publication date: 5/6/2008
  • Format: CD
  • Edition description: Unabridged
  • Sales rank: 714,160
  • Age range: 8 - 12 Years
  • Product dimensions: 5.20 (w) x 5.80 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Kathi Appelt is the author of the Newbery Honoree, National Book Award finalist, PEN USA Literary Award-winning, and bestselling The Underneath as well as the National Book Award finalist The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, Keeper, and many picture books. She has two grown children and lives in Texas with her husband. Visit her at KathiAppelt.com.

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Read an Excerpt

1

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. A small calico cat. Her family, the one she lived with, has left her in this old a nd forgotten forest, this forest where the rain is soaking into her soft fur.

How long has she been walking? Hours? Days? She wasn't even sure how she got here, so far from the town where she grew up. Something about a car, something about a long drive. And now here she is. Here in this old forest where the rain slipped between the branches and settled into her fur. The pine needles were soft beneath her feet; she heard the water splash onto the puddles all around, noticed the evening roll in, the sky grow darker.

She walked and walked, farther and farther from the red dirt road. She should have been afraid. She should have been concerned about the lightning, slicing the drops of rain in two and electrifying the air. She should have been worried in the falling dark. But mostly she was lonely.

She walked some more on the soft pine needles until at last she found an old nest, maybe a squirrel's, maybe a skunk's, maybe a porcupine's; it's hard to tell when a nest has gone unused for a long time, and this one surely had. She was grateful to find it, an old nest, empty, a little dry, not very, but somewhat out of the rain, away from the slashes of lightning, here at the base of a gnarled tupelo tree, somewhere in the heart of the piney woods. Here, she curled up in a tight ball and waited, purred to her unborn babies. And the trees, the tall and kindly trees, watched over her while she slept, slept the whole night through. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt

2

AHH,THE TREES. On the other side of the forest, there is an old loblolly pine. Once, it was the tallest tree in the forest, a hundred feet up it reached, right up to the clouds, right beneath the stars. Such a tree. Now broken in half, it stands beside the creek called the Little Sorrowful.

Trees are the keepers of stories. If you could understand the languages of oak and elm and tallow, they might tell you about another storm, an earlier one, twenty-five years ago to be exact, a storm that barreled across the sky, filling up the streams and bayous, how it dipped and charged, rushed through the boughs. Its black clouds were enormous, thick and heavy with the water it had scooped up from the Gulf of Mexico due south of here, swirling its way north, where it sucked up more moisture from the Sabine River to the east, the river that divides Texas and Louisiana.

This tree, a thousand years old, huge and wide, straight and true,would say how it lifted its branches and welcomed the heavy rain, how it shivered as the cool water ran down its trunk and washed the dust from its long needles. How it sighed in that coolness.

But then, in that dwindling of rain, that calming of wind, that solid darkness, a rogue bolt of lightning zipped from the clouds and struck. Bark flew in splinters, the trunk sizzled from the top of the crown to the deepest roots; the bolt pierced the very center of the tree.

A tree as old as this has a large and sturdy heart, but it is no match for a billion volts of electricity.The giant tree trembled for a full minute, a shower of sparks and wood fell to the wet forest floor. Then it stood completely still. A smaller tree might have jumped, might have spun and spun and spun until it crashed onto the earth. Not this pine, this loblolly pine, rooted so deep into the clay beside the creek; it simply stood beneath the blue-black sky while steam boiled from the gash sixty feet up, an open wound.This pine did not fall to the earth or slide into the creek. Not then.

And not now. It still stands. Most of its branches have cracked and fallen.The upper stories have long ago tumbled to the forest floor. Some of them have slipped into the creek and drifted downstream, down to the silver Sabine, down to the Gulf of Mexico. Down.

But the trunk remains, tall and hollow, straight and true. Right here on the Little Sorrowful, just a mile or so from a calico cat, curled inside her dry nest, while the rain falls all around. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt

3

MEANWHILE, DEEP BENEATH the hard red dirt, held tightly in the grip of the old tree's roots, something has come loose. A large jar buried centuries ago. A jar made from the same clay that lines the bed of the creek, a vessel with clean lines and a smooth surface, whose decoration was etched by an artist of merit. A jar meant for storing berries and crawdads and clean water, not for being buried like this far beneath the ground, held tight in the web of the tree's tangled roots. This jar. With its contents: A creature even older than the forest itself, older than the creek, the last of her kind. This beautiful jar, shaken loose in the random strike of lightning that pierced the tree's heart and seared downward into the tangled roots. Ever since, they have been loosening their grip.

Trapped, the creature has waited. For a thousand years she has slipped in and out of her deep, deep sleep, stirred in her pitch-black prison beneath the dying pine. Sssssooooonnnn, she whispered into the deep and solemn dark, my time will come. Then she closed her eyes and returned to sleep. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt

4

IT WASN'T THE chirring of the mourning doves that woke the calico cat, or the uncertain sun peeking through the clouds, or even the rustling of a nearby squirrel. No, it was the baying of a nearby hound. 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. Here was a song that sounded exactly the way she felt.

Oh, I woke up on this bayou,
Got a chain around my heart.
Yes, I'm sitting on this bayou,
Got a chain tied 'round my heart.
Can't you see I'm dyin'?
Can't you see I'm cryin'?
Can't you throw an old dog a bone?
Oh, I woke up, it was rainin',
But it was tears came fallin' down.
Yes, I woke up, it was rainin',
But it was tears came fallin' down.
Can't you see I'm tryin'?
Can't you hear my cryin'?
Can't you see I'm all alone?
Can't you throw this old dog a bone?

She cocked her ears to see which direction it came from. Then she stood up and followed its bluesy notes, deeper and deeper into the piney woods. Away from the road, from the old, abandoned nest, away from the people who had left her here with her belly full of kittens. She followed that song. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt

5

FOR CATS, A hound is a natural enemy. This is the order of things. Yet how could the calico cat be afraid of a hound who sang, whose notes filled the air with so much longing? But when she got to the place where the hound sang, she knew that something was wrong.

She stopped.

In front of her sat a shabby frame house with peeling paint, a house that slumped on one side as if it were sinking into the red dirt. The windows were cracked and grimy. There was a rusted pickup truck parked next to it, a dark puddle of thick oil pooled beneath its undercarriage. She sniffed the air. It was wrong, this place. The air was heavy with the scent of old bones, of fish and dried skins, skins that hung from the porch like a ragged curtain.

Wrong was everywhere.

She should turn around, she should go away, she should not look back. She swallowed. Perhaps she had taken the wrong path? What path should she take? All the paths were the same. She felt her kittens stir. It surely wouldn't be safe to stay here in this shabby place.

She was about to turn around, when there it was again — the song, those silver notes, the ones that settled just beneath her skin. Her kittens stirred again, as if they, too, could hear the beckoning song. She stepped closer to the unkempt house, stepped into the overgrown yard. She cocked her ears and let the notes lead her, pull her around the corner. There they were, those bluesy notes.

Oh, I woke up, it was rainin',
But it was tears came fallin' down.
Yes, I woke up, it was rainin',
But it was tears came fallin' down.
Can't you see I'm tryin'?
Can't you hear my cryin'?
Can't you see I'm all alone?
Can't you throw this old dog a bone?

Then she realized, this song wasn't calling for a bone, it was calling for something else, someone else. Another step, another corner. And there he was, chained to the corner of the back porch. His eyes were closed, his head held back, baying.

She should be afraid, she should turn around and run, she should climb the nearest tree. She did not. Instead, she simply walked right up to this baying hound and rubbed against his front legs. She knew the answer to his song, for if she could bay, her song would be the same.

Here.

Right here.

Ranger. Copyright © 2008 by Kathi Appelt

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Introduction

PRE-READING ACTIVITY

1. The action in the book takes place in the marshy swampland and deep forests of Texas's bayou region. Research bayous and their ecosystems and prepare a report. In what parts of the world do bayous exist? What kinds of plants and animals live in bayous? How are bayous similar to and different from other ecological environments — for example, what do bayous have in common with the Florida Everglades, and how do the two areas differ?

2. Long before the Europeans settled along the Gulf Coast, a varied group of Native Americans live in the piney woods of East Texas and Louisiana. They were collectively known as the Caddo. It was from the Caddo language that the name for the state of Texas came about. The name meant "friend." In fact, the Caddo were known as a friendly people. Even though Hawk Man and his family weren't Caddo themselves, they might have been welcome in a Caddo village, just as the later Europeans were welcomed. Research the Caddo. There are hardly any left in their original homeland, and they have mostly settled in Oklahoma and Mexico. Why did they leave? What were some of the things that they were famous for? How did they learn to survive in the marshy swamps of their native territory?

DISCUSSION TOPICS

1. Grandmother Moccasin and her daughter Night Song are lamia, half-serpent and half-human. Hawk Man is also an "animal of enchantment" [page 61], having been a bird before turning into a man. If you could be a shape-shifter, which animal would you choose to become? What do you think of the shape-shifter rule: "Once a creature of enchantment returns to its animal form, it cannot go back" [page 47]? If you wereHawk Man or his daughter, would you have become an animal again, even if it meant you could never return to your human form?

2. Until he meets Mama the calico cat, Ranger the bloodhound doesn't realize how lonely he is; Ranger muses that when Mama found him, he "didn't know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn't," [page 30]. What are the differences between being alone, and being lonely? Is it possible to be lonely even when you're surrounded by people?

3. Abused as a child and later abandoned by his father, Gar Face the trapper lives in a world of anger, and his drinking only deepens his hatred. Does anything make Gar Face happy? If so, what is it? Even though he does evil things throughout the book, do you think he deserved to die in the jaws of the Alligator King?

4. When an author assigns human characteristics to non-human beings, this is called anthropomorphism. What are some examples of anthropomorphism in the book? In real life, do you think plants or animals have feelings like human beings do?

5. Sabine the kitten is named for the Sabine River that feeds the Bayou Tartine. Her brother's name is the same as the playful character in Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream — Puck is a mischievous spirit who often gets into trouble. What do the names of some the characters in The Underneath — like those of the kittens, Gar Face, Ranger, Night Song — reveal about their personalities? Does your name have a special origin, or are you named for a family member? How does your name reflect who you are?

6. Ranger, Mama, Sabine, and Puck refer to themselves as a family. What makes a family? Does a family only consist of parents, children, and relatives? Describe your own family — does it include people who aren't related to you?

7. When Puck gets lost in the forest after his mother drowns, he has to learn to hunt in order to eat. Sabine realizes she needs to go out from "the underneath" so she can find food for herself and Ranger, a job that Mama performed. These are just two ways that the kittens have to grow up — what are other examples?

8. Hawk Man, having turned back into a bird in order to find his daughter, spies Puck lost and hungry in the woods, and drops a mouse from the sky for Puck to eat. Name some other acts of kindness from the story.

9. As Gar Face captures Sabine in the yard, Ranger goes wild with fury and lunges at Gar Face, knocks him down, and bites him on the leg — allowing Sabine to escape. Were you surprised at Ranger's reaction? Why didn't Gar Face expect that Ranger might behave this way?

10. "You have to go back for your sister. If something happens to me, promise you'll find her," [page 77]. Did you think that Puck would be able to keep this promise to his mother? Talk about some other promises made by characters in the novel; were they kept? How, and at what cost?

11. Music plays a big role in the book, from the blues songs that Ranger bays into the moonlight to the enchanting lullabies of Night Song. Discuss music and what it means in the story. How does music help some of the characters?

12. Talk about Grandmother Moccasin. Do you think she was selfish for not telling Night Song about the rule that shape-shifters can't go back to their human form once they become an animal? Did she deserve to be imprisoned in the jar for so long? What is the lesson she learns after she's finally freed?

13. One of the novel's main themes is loss. Which of the characters have lost something, and what did they lose? Do the characters who suffer loss eventually find something new to take the place of what is gone?

14. When children don't obey to their parents in The Underneath, bad things happen. Who were the characters who didn't listen to their parents? What were the consequences of their disobedience? Did these characters learn from their mistakes?

15. Dogs and cats are supposed to hate each other, yet Ranger and Mama become close friends. Discuss their unlikely friendship — what were some of the things they have in common? What are other unusual friendships portrayed in the book? Do you have a friend who, on the surface, seems like someone you wouldn't ordinarily like? Why do you get along with this person?

ACTIVITIES & PROJECTS

1. The voices of birds, animals, and reptiles tell most of the story in The Underneath. Write your own story from a creature's point of view, whether it's a household pet, or animal in the wild, or bird, reptile, fish, or some other living thing.

2. How does the narrative structure of The Underneath — where several characters take turns telling the story — resemble that of a television show? Research how to write a television screenplay. Choose one scene from the book and write a screenplay based on it, and include the characters' dialogue, the stage direction, and descriptions of the scenery.

3. Ranger the bloodhound bays mournfully about loneliness; drawn to his songs, Mama the calico cat sets out to find who sings them. Pick an emotion — loneliness, anger, fear, love — and write song lyrics, or a poem, about feelings you have.

4. The book's last chapter contains a passage about the trees of the bayou, how they could tell us what happened to Ranger, Sabine, and Puck after the story ends. Write a new last chapter for The Underneath, detailing what the three animals have done since they were reunited.

5. In the book, the hummingbird is described as an "intermediary" and "messenger," a being that is able to travel between life and death because it can fly so quickly. Research the mythology of some of the wild creatures in The Underneath — such as snakes, alligators, or hawks — and create a report about one. Illustrate your report with pictures or illustrations.

ABOUT THE BOOK

An abandoned calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound dog deep in the backwaters of the bayou, and sets out to find him. When they finally meet, Mama the calico cat and Ranger the bloodhound form a fast and unlikely bond, forged in loneliness and fueled by fierce love. They become a family after the kittens are born, and Ranger urges Mama to remain under the porch and raise Sabine and Puck, because Gar Face — the evil man living inside the house — will surely use her or her kittens as alligator bait should he find them. They'll be safe in the Underneath...as long as they stay there.

But in a moment of curiosity, one of the kittens sets off an astonishing chain of events that reverberates through the bayou, and brings the past together with the present in remarkable ways. Following the tradition of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Flannery O'Connor, and Carson McCullers, in The Underneath Kathi Appelt spins a harrowing yet keenly sweet tale filled with many absorbing themes, such as the power of love (and of hate), the fragility of happiness, and the importance of making good on your promises. This guide is designed to assist your classroom's discussion of this poignant novel.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR

Kathi Appelt has written a number of successful picture books. This is her debut novel. She lives in Texas. David Small was awarded a Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President? He has illustrated many other books for children, including Once upon a Banana and When Dinosaurs Came with Everything. He lives in Mendon, Michigan.

Kathi Appelt, at the age of seven, stumbled and fell into an alligator pit in San Antonio, Texas, a place where there should be no alligators or alligator pits. Fortunately she was a lot bigger than the alligator, who was more scared of her than she was of it!

She is a member of the faculty at Vermont College's Master of Fine Arts program and occasionally teaches creative writing at Texas A&M University. She has two grown children, and lives in Texas with her husband and four cats. Her debut novel, The Underneath, was a National Book Award finalist and a Newbery Honor book.  

David Small is the Caldecott Award-winning illustrator of So You Want to Be President? by Judith St. George. He received a Caldecott Honor medal for The Gardener by Sarah Stewart. He has also illustrated many other beloved picture books, which include The Library and The Journey, both by Sarah Stewart, and Imogene's Antlers, which he also wrote. He lives in Michigan with his wife, Sarah Stewart.

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Interviews & Essays

Behind the Book

A Caddo jar? A Calico cat? An encounter with a water moccasin? What in the world do these three things have to do with one another, and how did they find themselves together in a single story?

Let me tell you about crows. One day I was sitting at my desk when my little cat, Jazzmyn, sitting idly by the window, started twitching her tail. I got up to see what it was that had caught her attention. There, just a few feet away, was a crow, resting on a branch in the large post oak just outside my studio window. While Jazz and I stood there, the crow flitted back and forth from the ground to her nest. Of course, I thought, she's building a nest. The oak is home to lots of birds. It's a huge tree, sturdy and serene.

Because crows are notorious for finding shiny objects, I picked up a pair of binoculars to see if could find the nest, and further, to see what she had put there. Sure enough, there was string, gum wrappers, and best of all, a bottle cap. I could understand the string and the paper, but what about the bottle cap? Did she want it only to decorate her nest? Hard to tell.

I believe that writers are like crows. We find shiny objects and take them back to our desks and weave them into a story. The crow builds a nest, the writer builds a story. Some things are necessary: the elements that hold the story together, like the string and the paper might hold the nest together. Some things are there for reasons of beauty: a bottle cap for instance.

Whenever I sit down to write, I try to bring as many shiny objects to the page as I can and then try to figure out how I can weave these together in a way that makes sense. Sometimes they do, sometimes they don't.

What makes an element work in a story is whether or not it taps into these emotions: love and fear. I call these the great twins of motivation. Love and Fear. Opposites. Required. You can't really have one without the other.

When I was a girl, around ten years old, a calico cat wandered into our garage in the middle of Houston. She walked right up to our big hound, Sam, and invited herself to share his food. My sisters and I couldn't believe that Sam allowed this. He had never before liked cats. But here she was, small, petite, and not at all afraid of Sam. She lived in our garage for a couple of weeks, and then gave birth to four kittens. We named them after the seasons -- Summer, Spring, Autumn, and Winter. Then, when the babies were just a few weeks old, the calico cat was hit by a car and killed. Sam took over as resident parent. Here was a story of love.

Years later, when my own son, Jacob, was just a baby, I went to visit my father, who lived along the Apalachicola River in Florida, a dense, swampy area not so different from the region in East Texas where The Underneath takes place. We went out one day in his small fishing boat. I sat in the back of the boat, Jacob in my arms. Dad was pulling the boat along with a pair of long oars. There was no motor that I recall. For some reason I looked over my shoulder, and only ten feet behind us was a huge water moccasin, the largest I'd ever seen, swimming just behind us. Her cottonmouth was wide open as if she were charging us, coming right toward us. I thought she might jump into the boat, but at the last minute, she ducked beneath the water and I never saw her again. It was a terrifying moment for me, my baby in my arms, the enormous snake just feet away. Here was fear, bright and hard. Then, years ago, I saw a photo of a beautiful jar, made by a Caddo artist, Jerilyn Redcorn. The jar had the etching of a snake on it. It was both beautiful and powerful all at once. It seemed to tell a story all its own. A useful jar, yes, but a jar for simply admiring, too. All three -- the cat, the snake, the jar -- made an impression upon me. Love and Fear. They were there, present in each.

The Underneath, then, began with a question: How can I bring these three things together to make a single story? As I wrote, I learned things about cats and snakes and the Caddo. While the crow built her nest, I built my story. And all the while, the oak beside my window stood there for both of us, holding on to the nest, offering up a story. --Kathi Appelt
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Reading Group Guide

PRE-READING ACTIVITY

1. The action in the book takes place in the marshy swampland and deep forests of Texas's bayou region. Research bayous and their ecosystems and prepare a report. In what parts of the world do bayous exist? What kinds of plants and animals live in bayous? How are bayous similar to and different from other ecological environments — for example, what do bayous have in common with the Florida Everglades, and how do the two areas differ?

2. Long before the Europeans settled along the Gulf Coast, a varied group of Native Americans live in the piney woods of East Texas and Louisiana. They were collectively known as the Caddo. It was from the Caddo language that the name for the state of Texas came about. The name meant "friend." In fact, the Caddo were known as a friendly people. Even though Hawk Man and his family weren't Caddo themselves, they might have been welcome in a Caddo village, just as the later Europeans were welcomed. Research the Caddo. There are hardly any left in their original homeland, and they have mostly settled in Oklahoma and Mexico. Why did they leave? What were some of the things that they were famous for? How did they learn to survive in the marshy swamps of their native territory?

DISCUSSION TOPICS

1. Grandmother Moccasin and her daughter Night Song are lamia, half-serpent and half-human. Hawk Man is also an "animal of enchantment" [page 61], having been a bird before turning into a man. If you could be a shape-shifter, which animal would you choose to become? What do you think of the shape-shifter rule: "Once a creature of enchantment returns to its animal form, it cannot go back" [page 47]? If you were Hawk Man or his daughter, would you have become an animal again, even if it meant you could never return to your human form?

2. Until he meets Mama the calico cat, Ranger the bloodhound doesn't realize how lonely he is; Ranger muses that when Mama found him, he "didn't know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn't," [page 30]. What are the differences between being alone, and being lonely? Is it possible to be lonely even when you're surrounded by people?

3. Abused as a child and later abandoned by his father, Gar Face the trapper lives in a world of anger, and his drinking only deepens his hatred. Does anything make Gar Face happy? If so, what is it? Even though he does evil things throughout the book, do you think he deserved to die in the jaws of the Alligator King?

4. When an author assigns human characteristics to non-human beings, this is called anthropomorphism. What are some examples of anthropomorphism in the book? In real life, do you think plants or animals have feelings like human beings do?

5. Sabine the kitten is named for the Sabine River that feeds the Bayou Tartine. Her brother's name is the same as the playful character in Shakespeare's play, A Midsummer Night's Dream — Puck is a mischievous spirit who often gets into trouble. What do the names of some the characters in The Underneath — like those of the kittens, Gar Face, Ranger, Night Song — reveal about their personalities? Does your name have a special origin, or are you named for a family member? How does your name reflect who you are?

6. Ranger, Mama, Sabine, and Puck refer to themselves as a family. What makes a family? Does a family only consist of parents, children, and relatives? Describe your own family — does it include people who aren't related to you?

7. When Puck gets lost in the forest after his mother drowns, he has to learn to hunt in order to eat. Sabine realizes she needs to go out from "the underneath" so she can find food for herself and Ranger, a job that Mama performed. These are just two ways that the kittens have to grow up — what are other examples?

8. Hawk Man, having turned back into a bird in order to find his daughter, spies Puck lost and hungry in the woods, and drops a mouse from the sky for Puck to eat. Name some other acts of kindness from the story.

9. As Gar Face captures Sabine in the yard, Ranger goes wild with fury and lunges at Gar Face, knocks him down, and bites him on the leg — allowing Sabine to escape. Were you surprised at Ranger's reaction? Why didn't Gar Face expect that Ranger might behave this way?

10. "You have to go back for your sister. If something happens to me, promise you'll find her," [page 77]. Did you think that Puck would be able to keep this promise to his mother? Talk about some other promises made by characters in the novel; were they kept? How, and at what cost?

11. Music plays a big role in the book, from the blues songs that Ranger bays into the moonlight to the enchanting lullabies of Night Song. Discuss music and what it means in the story. How does music help some of the characters?

12. Talk about Grandmother Moccasin. Do you think she was selfish for not telling Night Song about the rule that shape-shifters can't go back to their human form once they become an animal? Did she deserve to be imprisoned in the jar for so long? What is the lesson she learns after she's finally freed?

13. One of the novel's main themes is loss. Which of the characters have lost something, and what did they lose? Do the characters who suffer loss eventually find something new to take the place of what is gone?

14. When children don't obey to their parents in The Underneath, bad things happen. Who were the characters who didn't listen to their parents? What were the consequences of their disobedience? Did these characters learn from their mistakes?

15. Dogs and cats are supposed to hate each other, yet Ranger and Mama become close friends. Discuss their unlikely friendship — what were some of the things they have in common? What are other unusual friendships portrayed in the book? Do you have a friend who, on the surface, seems like someone you wouldn't ordinarily like? Why do you get along with this person?

ACTIVITIES & PROJECTS

1. The voices of birds, animals, and reptiles tell most of the story in The Underneath. Write your own story from a creature's point of view, whether it's a household pet, or animal in the wild, or bird, reptile, fish, or some other living thing.

2. How does the narrative structure of The Underneath — where several characters take turns telling the story — resemble that of a television show? Research how to write a television screenplay. Choose one scene from the book and write a screenplay based on it, and include the characters' dialogue, the stage direction, and descriptions of the scenery.

3. Ranger the bloodhound bays mournfully about loneliness; drawn to his songs, Mama the calico cat sets out to find who sings them. Pick an emotion — loneliness, anger, fear, love — and write song lyrics, or a poem, about feelings you have.

4. The book's last chapter contains a passage about the trees of the bayou, how they could tell us what happened to Ranger, Sabine, and Puck after the story ends. Write a new last chapter for The Underneath, detailing what the three animals have done since they were reunited.

5. In the book, the hummingbird is described as an "intermediary" and "messenger," a being that is able to travel between life and death because it can fly so quickly. Research the mythology of some of the wild creatures in The Underneath — such as snakes, alligators, or hawks — and create a report about one. Illustrate your report with pictures or illustrations.

ABOUT THE BOOK

An abandoned calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound dog deep in the backwaters of the bayou, and sets out to find him. When they finally meet, Mama the calico cat and Ranger the bloodhound form a fast and unlikely bond, forged in loneliness and fueled by fierce love. They become a family after the kittens are born, and Ranger urges Mama to remain under the porch and raise Sabine and Puck, because Gar Face — the evil man living inside the house — will surely use her or her kittens as alligator bait should he find them. They'll be safe in the Underneath...as long as they stay there.

But in a moment of curiosity, one of the kittens sets off an astonishing chain of events that reverberates through the bayou, and brings the past together with the present in remarkable ways. Following the tradition of Marjorie Kinnan Rawlings, Flannery O'Connor, and Carson McCullers, in The Underneath Kathi Appelt spins a harrowing yet keenly sweet tale filled with many absorbing themes, such as the power of love (and of hate), the fragility of happiness, and the importance of making good on your promises. This guide is designed to assist your classroom's discussion of this poignant novel.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR AND ILLUSTRATOR

Kathi Appelt has written a number of successful picture books. This is her debut novel. She lives in Texas. David Small was awarded a Caldecott Medal for So You Want to Be President? He has illustrated many other books for children, including Once upon a Banana and When Dinosaurs Came with Everything. He lives in Mendon, Michigan.

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