The Underneath by Kathi Appelt
I spend a lot of time trying to find books that my children will love. And, just when I think I’ve figured it out with an exceptional choice, my daughter will discard the book with one glance at the cover. I thought for sure I had a winner with The Underneath. It is simultaneously award winning and about the friendship between kittens and a hound dog. How could I go wrong?
Well, let’s just say that we were all surprised by this book. First of all, don’t let the promise of cuddly friendships between animals lull you. This book has very dark elements touching on themes of domestic violence, anger, animal abuse, alcoholism, starvation, evil, jealousy and revenge. However, despite these grave aspects of the book, it is ultimately a poetic tale that leaves you feeling fulfilled. It is a book that resists all labels – it is a dark book about true love, it is a suspenseful book that reads like poetry, and it is an ancient tale and a modern one. Some children’s books are page-turners. This one is not – it is a work of art, with all of the complexities of an innovative masterpiece.
If you read the reviews people either love it or hate it. When I mentioned we were reading The Underneath to the lady in the bookstore, she cringed. She stopped reading the book as soon as she got to the hound dog cruelly chained to the porch. She knows these award-nominating librarians all too well. They just love sad animal stories. According to her, stories of beloved pets dying of prolonged painful diseases make their day. I’m going to go back and recommend she give this book a second chance. It’s a shame if people pass this book up because of concerns with its dark themes. It ultimately delivers a redemption that makes you feel good about the love in this world. Plus, it is fantastic writing.
However, I wouldn’t recommend it to young children to read by themselves. For the right young teenager this could be the perfect book. They need to be a patient reader comfortable with a slower pace who is entranced by the darker themes. I read the entire book to my girls over a couple of weeks. Every night the girls looked forward to it, but neither one of them ever grabbed it and tried to finish it on their own. I’m glad because I enjoyed reading it to them. It is an exceptional tale.
– Jessica Wheeler
Peter and the Starcatchers
There is a special kind of love I feel when I hear my husband telling an animated and silly story to our children. He becomes as much a child as they are as he describes the shenanigans of our favorite made up character ‘Foul Kitty.’ In reading Peter and the Starcatchers as well as its sequel Peter and the Shadow Thieves, I found that the writing voice is exactly that of a silly dad telling his version of how Peter Pan came to be. The voice of a dad, who perhaps still has not grown up all the way.
Unlike the original Peter Pan, there are no complex messages in these books. Peter and the Starcatchers just explains things like; how Peter came to the Island of Never Land, how he learned to fly, how the mermaids were formed, why he doesn’t grow up, and how Tinkerbell came into being. In the process of explaining these things, they tell a great and entertaining pirate romp of a story. This book ranks up there with some of Violet’s favorite books. Good battles evil, and except for a little good old fashioned stereotypical female jealousy everything falls exactly where it should. In addition to the naughty but loveable (seriously – all the female characters love him) character of Peter, there is Molly who is a strong girl character. I recommend this book for third graders on up. The story line jumps around, and can be a little challenging for younger kids to follow. There also is quite a bit of suspense, and, in between the silliness, threats of violence and death (think Disney death not Saving Private Ryan death). All in, this is a well-done prequel to the Disney version of Peter Pan. And while it doesn’t ask us to examine the universal resistance of men to mature, it might inspire many to read the real Peter Pan and ask just that. In the meantime, here’s to creative men getting in touch with their inner-story-telling-child.
– Jessica Wheeler
P.S. I also just finished the third in the series, The Secrets of Rundoon. It seems to have a totally different voice than the first two. Most of the silliness is gone, and the suspense is cranked up a notch or two. They focus on the idea that Peter has to save the world from total annihilation – so I suppose it is difficult to insert too much humor when the age old battle between light and dark hangs in the balance. I asked Violet, and she said she still thought there were funny parts, though.
The Adoration of Jenna Fox by Mary E. Pearson
Girls in my high school classes have liked Mary E. Pearson’s books for years. Scribbler of Dreams has been listed as a favorite book of almost everyone who has read it. Her newest, The Adoration of Jenna Fox, also seems to be striking a chord with them.
In this book, Pearson explores a teenage girl’s struggle to develop a unique identity and an independent will separate from her parent’s expectations of her. But she sets this story within a future when human life itself can be simply bioengineered. Where is identity and independent will when life comes from a lab? What is really essential for making life worth living?
Jenna Fox , the survivor of a fiery crash, has a greater challenge discovering who she is than the average teenage girl. But her journey is a familiar one for teenage girls whose road to self-realization is less than smooth. The adoration of her parents gave her life, but as long as she can think and feel, her path through that life will be what she creates.
This book is entirely appropriate for middle and high school readers. Mostly of interest to girls, its exploration of the bio-engineered humanity that is on the horizon could interest boys as well.