A Decade of The Underneath: A Conversation with Kathi Appelt

Kathi Appelt writing in a notebook while a cat watches

If you were like me, you likely hooted with excitement when you heard that Kathi Appelt’s The Underneath had received a Newbery Honor in 2009. My enthusiasm was tempered only by the fact that it didn’t win the Newbery Medal itself.

It’s hard to believe it’s been a decade since the notable book was published—garnering much praise (including being a 2008 National Book Award finalist) but also trigger warnings about its graphic depictions of animal abuse.

Book cover: The Underneath

While Appelt has had much literary success—including a second National Book Award finalist (2013) with The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp—The Underneath was her debut novel. She’s come a long way from coloring on the garage wall as a child—don’t worry, that creativity was, thankfully, encouraged by her parents!

I was honored to speak with the very polite, present, and encouraging author by phone from her home in Texas recently.

Congrats on the anniversary and enduring success of The Underneath and your ensuing books. Did your parents always encourage your creativity?

KA: They were all about it. My dad read tons of Rudyard Kipling poetry to me growing up.

Did you always want to be a writer?

KA: I wanted to be a vet, but chemistry was not my forte. I always wanted to be a writer—but also a cowgirl! I have two grown boys, but I probably wouldn’t have written for children if I hadn’t had my own kids.

You’ve written more than forty books, many of them picturebooks. Do you prefer a particular format?

KA: In 2003, I was hired to serve on the faculty at Vermont College. They brought me in as a picturebook person, but I hadn’t written a novel yet. It actually became a matter of honor. The novel code just kept eluding me. It wasn’t that I didn’t want to write a novel; I certainly did. When The Underneath came out, many people didn’t know I had this whole body of work in picturebooks.

So one day, I wrote a memoir in prose poetry style. That book gave me some courage. I finally one day decided if I ever wanted to do it, I’d have to do it in these tiny chunks. Extended narrative still is hard for me. I kind of taught myself how to recognize what worked for me.

Many of your books feature animals; was that a natural subject for you?

KA: I’m an animal lover; I’ve always been an animal lover; I was a crazy horse girl. I have five cats—they showed up on our door. I’m right on the verge of being a crazy cat woman.

Some readers/adults expressed initial concern about the animal abuse depicted in The Underneath.

KA: When the book first came out, I had some hate mail…feelings were very strong. But animal abuse is very real. Kids need to know that—those emotional rehearsals where they can experience sadness and grief. A book is a safe place to have those experiences.

The Underneath takes place in a very distinct setting; how did you come to set it in a bayou near the Louisiana/Texas border?

KA: The natural world intrigues me. In college, I moved to East Texas with my sister; we lived in this tiny cabin. It was really back in the woods. Once you lived there . . . it has this sense of being old and remote and it feels like anything can happen back there, and probably does. It’s so mysterious at the same time. When I was writing The Underneath, I recalled those feelings. Who’s to say there aren’t ancient alligators in the swamps of East Texas?

What did winning a Newbery Honor mean to you?

KA: That was life changing; it was amazing. I worked hard to put my heart in that book. It had so much of me in it. Things from my past were in it; it meant a lot to me.

What’s next for you?

Book cover: Angel Thieves

KA: Max Attacks is a picturebook in the pipeline with Simon & Schuster, as well as a young adult novel in spring 2019 with a magical realism bent, Angel Thieves. It has contemporary and historical storylines about a man and his son who live in an antiques store and they steal cemetery angels. The back story is based on a true story about a slave who lived in pre-Civil War Houston. &


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