Certainly one of the most memorable books from the spring lists is The Underneath by Kathi Appelt (Atheneum)…already suggested by a couple of you in the last post. Monica Edinger posted earlier this year about its remarkable atmosphere, which is what I think makes the story linger, almost physically, in my memory. An unusual friendship is portrayed from perspectives both of innocence (Puck and Sabine) and experience (Ranger), as they struggle to survive in a place shaped by forces of history and emotion far beyond their grasp. Distinguished "interpretation of a theme or concept" jumps out to me first when I consider it against the Newbery criteria. Appelt’s narrative is rooted in the sensual present of whichever character she’s portraying and delivered in small chunks so that the experiences pile up gradually, allowing the young reader to digest each piece and build a complex structure that they can grasp. Monica had a lot more to say on this one, as did Fuse#8. (Did you, and I missed it? Please put the URL in a comment–)
The clearly allegorical storyline, the otherworldly tone, even the cut size and illustrations, have all led adults to remark upon this story’s uncanny resemblance to The Tale of Despereaux, which won the Newbery in 2004, even though the plots and characters themselves are clearly disimilar. However, since Despereaux is not eligible for this year’s award, it doesn’t enter into the discussions of this year’s Newbery committee members, who are to consider only eligible books pubilshed in this calendar year. That is, in their discussions The Underneath can be compared to other eligible titles, but not to The Tale of Despereaux…nor to any of Kathi Appelt’s previous books.
I’m curious if anyone else was slightly unsettled, as I was, by the "mythology" of Grandmother Moccassin. Are we to assume that this is an invented mythology? This is fiction, and Appelt doesn’t say anything in her note about it. She does say "I’m also grateful to the folk at Caddo Mounds State Park…for taking time to talk to me about the mysterious and wondrous Caddo, who inhabited the woodland areas of East Texas for thousands of years, who were master craftspeople and still are." I’m not sure if that means the "mythology" is based in anything she was told or not. She has, of course, the right as an author to tell a fictional story, but by referring to "the Caddo," and through Small’s illustrations, there is reference to a real people. (Note in the Newbery criteria that illustrations are not to be considered, unless they "distract," as they did for me here.) I was just reading an essay this morning by Adrienne Rich called "Woman and bird," which appears in What is Found There: Notebooks on Poetry and Politics (W.W. Norton, 1993). On page 7 she says: "I am suspicious–first of all, in myself–of adopted mysticism, of glib spirituality, above all of white people’s tendency to sniff and taste, uninvited, and in most cases to vampirize American Indian, or African, or Asian, or other ‘exotic’ ways of understanding." I am not accusing Appelt of this–but noting that this articulates my own suspicions about a lot of children’s literature these days. I don’t think enough of us are suspicious enough…so I try to compensate. I wonder: IS Appelt’s "mythology" in The Underneath based in a real people’s oral history, and if so, is it represented accurately and appropriately for the intended audience. This is something that I hope the Newbery committee follows up on. It folds back into the idea of "interpretation of a theme or concept."
We’re curious to hear what you think in particular about this title, looking at it in relation to the Newbery criteria. And please keep suggesting more titles that you think might be contenders. It’s helpful if you can give a little explanation of what you think makes it stand out.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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