The Underneath, Kathi Appelt, Atheneum, 2008, 311 pp
An old and abused hound dog sings the blues underneath the porch of a sagging cabin in east Texas. His howls attract an abandoned cat about to deliver kittens. Despite his mean drunk of a master, Ranger welcomes the cat and does his best to protect her and her kittens. His best is not good enough.
Set near the Little Sorrowful Creek, in the bayous of the Sabine River, the animals work out their destinies. The trees, the waters, the weather, a huge alligator and an ancient snake make up the characters of this animal tale. Kathi Appelt also weaves in ancient history and shape shifters, a bit confusing at times but always full of wonder and tension.
The writing is poetic and atmospheric. The only full human is Gar Face, Ranger's abusive master. He is a perfectly horrid villain. The vocabulary is rather steep for 8 or 9 year olds I think, but the author uses the bigger words many times so once a child looked up or learned the meanings, there are ample chances to get used to the words. But I would rate the book as good for experienced willing readers, probably 10 or above.
My nine-year-old granddaughter is currently reading it and is absolutely absorbed in the animals' lives. She has been instructed in how to use a dictionary and how to use the Internet to find pictures of unfamiliar things and places. She does this happily and willingly which may be somewhat unique.
I can see this being a wonderful read-aloud book in class or at home. It is a story that would get into any child's heart, boy or girl.
(The Underneath is available in paperback on the children's shelves at Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)