Carin Berger’s The Little Yellow Leaf has had a spot on my “best picture books about fall” list on its publication in 2008, when the New York Times named in one of the Best Illustrated Books of the year. So I’m happy to report that independent booksellers recently have chosen it as one of their 40 favorite children’s books of the past 40 years. Berger’s lovely story about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its branch also works beautifully as a parable about the value of teamwork.
October 17, 2010
February 13, 2009
Kathi Appelt’s Violent and Controversial 2009 Newbery and National Book Award Finalist, ‘The Underneath’
Cruelty to animals and people abounds in an acclaimed children’s novel set in an East Texas pine forest
The Underneath. By Kathi Appelt. Drawings by David Small. Atheneum, 311 pp., $19.99. Ages 8 and up.
By Janice Harayda
What were the Newbery and National Book Awards judges thinking when they named this novel a finalist for their prizes? That kids don’t see enough repulsive characters in other media and needed a book about two more? Or that they have to get their New Age twaddle early so that they’ll recognize it when they see it in The Secret?
The Underneath tells the linked stories of two hate-filled characters: a cruel gun-toting hermit and a poisonous shape-shifting serpent, who live deep in an East Texas pine forest. The hermit, known as Gar Face, avenges his abused childhood by shooting animals, getting drunk, and plotting to kill a giant alligator in a nearby bayou. He brutally mistreats his only companion, a lame bloodhound named Ranger. The serpent seethes over the loss of her daughter, who ran off with a shape-shifting hawk who changed into a handsome man. She, too, has one companion — the giant alligator that Gar Face wants to kill, “and he was not the snuggly type.” That is the closest you will find to wit in this novel.
Like the snake, Gar Face has an Ahab–like fixation on vengeance, complicated by the arrival of an abandoned calico cat, who soon has kittens. Ranger protects the cats and warns them to stay in “the Underneath” – a crawl space under the hermit’s shack — or face Gar Face’s fury. Unfortunately, kittens are hard to manage: “There is also that whole thing about curiosity.” This line is bad news for anyone who expects Newbery finalists to avoid clichéd themes like, “Curiosity killed the cat.”
The Underneath is so drenched in sorrow that while it might pain some children at any time, you wonder how it will affect those who are suffering greatly because of the recession. The scant redemption comes in the last few pages and at the cost of more violence. One hate-filled main character remains unrepentant and meets a grisly death. The other gives up on revenge and acts kindly, if belatedly. The message is: When you feel bitter, you can keep on hating or you can choose to love. A worthy idea, certainly. But the final act of kindness is so unexpected — and so little foreshadowed – that it’s as though Ahab had decided at the end of Moby-Dick to join a “Save the Whales” campaign.
In a sense, all the cruelty is beside the point: There’s plenty of cruelty to children in the novels of Charles Dickens, and they’re still worthy of readers, young and old. The problem with The Underneath is in part a lack of balance. Good children’s books may have cruel adults, but those characters tend not to predominate as in this novel: Villains share center stage with better people. The absence of good people in major roles invests The Underneath — perhaps inadvertently — with a deeply cynical view of human nature.
What, then, could the Newbery and National Book Awards judges have liked about this controversial book, apart from its love-is-good message? Above all, a rich sense of place. The Underneath reflects a strong appreciation for the landscape of the Texas-Louisiana border — the birds and fish, the trees and plants, the marshes and bayous. A sense of landscape isn’t enough to sustain a novel. But it’s not nothing when so many children’s books offer bland descriptions of classrooms and soccer fields (and, interestingly, it’s something The Underneath shares with the 2007 Newbery winner, The Higher Power of Lucky, which vividly evokes the Mojave).
Kathi Appelt also writes clearly, although her book has some inane lines like: “The pain she felt was palpable.” She weaves her several storylines together smoothly, if often repetitively, and maintains a fair amount of suspense given that two of her characters at times do little more than sit around plotting revenge.
But one aspect of The Underneath that may have appealed to judges isn’t a virtue: It touches many ideologically fashionable bases. These include the idea that animals (and, in this book, other forms of nonhuman life) are morally superior to people.
After Gar Face commits a heinous act, the book asks: “What do you call a person like that? The trees have a word: evil.” No, humans have a word, but you wouldn’t know it from this story. Later we get more on the wisdom of trees, written in pretentious tones like this:
“For trees, who see so much sorrow, so much anger, so much desperation, know love for the rare wonder of it, so they are champions of it and will do whatever the can to help it along its way.”
This is sentimental New Age goop, pitched to an age in which environmentalism often becomes substitute religion. The Underneath acknowledges that the hermit is evil. But it’s trees — not wise people — who see that he is. The best children’s books may have virtuous animals or trees, but they also have admirable humans. Charlotte’s Web has Wilbur and Fern (and part of E. B. White’s genius is that his novel has a girl named Fern, not a talking fern). In The Underneath the only good humans are part-animal shape-shifters who are not main but supporting characters. Even they die terrible deaths. Instead of hope, this bleak book offers children a variation on the cynical political axiom: If you want a friend in Washington, get a dog.
Best line: “This Piney Woods forest in far East Texas is wet and steamy. Take a step and your footprint will fill with water.”
Worst line: “Humans are designed to be with other humans, even those with mixed blood.” That “mixed blood” refers to shape-shifters, creatures half-human and half-bird or -reptile. But the phrase comes across as an unintentional racial slur. Among David Small’s illustrations (which strike me as just OK): Appelt says Hawk Man has “coppery feathers in his long black hair,” but in a picture he appears to have a shaved head.
Recommendation? The Underneath has the most misleading dust-jacket copy I’ve seen on a children’s novel this year, which begins: “A calico cat, about to have kittens, hears the lonely howl of a chained-up hound deep in the backwaters of 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.” Strictly speaking, that is accurate. But it gives a poor sense of what you will find in this book, which is not a sweet story about a cat and dog. Librarian Elizabeth Bird got it right when she warned that if you know children who can’t read Charlotte’s Web because they find Charlotte’s death too disturbing, “boy oh boy is this NOT the book for them.”
Editor: Caitlyn Dlouhy
Published: May 2008
Furthermore: The Underneath was a finalist for the 2008 National Book Award for young people’s literature. It won a 2009 Newbery Honor Book citation from the American Library Association. The Underneath is the first novel by Appelt, who has also written picture books for children.
Note: I haven’t read the 2009 Newbery winner, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, so I can’t compare it to The Underneath. If you’ve read both novels, can you suggest what it has that Appelt’s book doesn’t? Or recommend a recent Honor Book that might have more to offer 8-to-12-year-olds? Thanks. Jan
One-Minute Book Reviews is the home of the annual Delete Key awards for the year’s worst writing in books for adults or children. The 2009 finalists will be announced on Feb. 26 and the winners on March 15. Please bookmark this site or subscribe to the RSS feed to avoid missing these posts.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
January 24, 2009
A fable about an oak leaf that doesn’t want to leave its tree
The Little Yellow Leaf. By Carin Berger. Greenwillow, 32 pp., $16.99. Ages 2 and up.
By Janice Harayda
Carin Berger first caught my eye when her wonderful pictures nearly stole the show from Jack Prelutsky’s whimsical poems in Behold the Bold Umbrellaphant. Now she’s back with The Little Yellow Leaf, a book that has turned up on many lists of favorites for the Caldecott Medal that the American Library Association will award on Monday to “the most distinguished American picture book for children.” The ALA judges have good reason to consider this lovely fable.
Its plot works well on its own terms. A yellow oak leaf is “not ready” to fall from the tree in autumn and bides its time until early winter, when it finds a scarlet leaf left on the bough and the two agree to leave together. And throughout the book, Berger maintains suspense about how or whether the yellow leaf will leave its perch.
But The Little Yellow Leaf also works a parable about teamwork, or how a friend’s encouragement can make the difference when you’re facing a change. In that sense the book resembles such classics as The Story of Ferdinand and Mike Mulligan and His Steam Shovel, which tell good stories that have a second layer of meaning: They are parables about nonviolence and growing old, respectively.
Berger works in her signature mixed media that include exquisite cut-paper collages made from everyday items – a 1914 water bill, graph paper, faded snippets books or articles in several languages. Her most memorable illustration helps to show how the yellow leaf (actually, yellow and tawny) clings to its branch day and night: It’s a two-page image of the sun made from thousands of tiny hand-cut squares and rectangles, each unique, laid out in a parquet design. Such humble materials show the beauty of recycled objects.
Berger also has a fine and subtle sense of color, one of the best I’ve seen in a living picture-book artist. She knows how to infuse a muted palette with drama by using techniques such as shifting perspectives that show her leaf from varied angles and distances. Her work benefits further from two exceptional design elements: an unusual vertical format that suggests the shape of a tree and an extra set of endpapers at the front and back (for a total of four in front and four in back) that trace the path of a leaf in midair and draw your eye into and out of the book.
The Little Yellow Leaf is old-fashioned book in the best sense of that term — meticulously crafted and free of commercial taint — that will compete against flashier books, some of them much less effective, in the Caldecott stakes. So I’d guess that if it wins a 2009 award, it will be an Honor Book citation, not the top prize. And although it isn’t the only medal-worthy book of the year, I’d be delighted if I were proved wrong on Monday.
Best line/picture: “Into the waiting wind they danced … ”
Worst line/picture: “A chill filled the air / and the sun sank slow.”
Recommendation? Apart from its high artistic merits. this book could help children explore their feelings about many events for which with they don’t feel ready, such as the first day of school, preschool, or day care.
Published: August 2008
Furthermore: The Little Yellow Leaf was one of the New York Times’s Best Illustrated Books of the Year. Carin Berger lives in New York City and shows an unusually generous number of illustrations from the book on her Web site.
You can also follow Jan on Twitter at www.twitter.com/janiceharayda.
© 2009 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.
November 6, 2008
How Kinky Does Poetry Get? How About a Poem in the Shape of the State of New York? (Quote of the Day / ‘The Poetry Dictionary’)
The other day I came across the late Australian writer Judith Wright’s poem “Rainforest,” in which the lines are arranged in the shape of a tree – a subtle an example of a pattern poem, or a poem in which the words or lines form a typographic picture that relates to the subject. And I wondered: How kinky does poetry get? What are some of the more offbeat shapes that poems have taken? Here’s an answer from John Drury’s The Poetry Dictionary (Writer’s Digest Books, 374 pp., $14.99, paperback), which has a foreword by Dana Gioia:
“John Hollander’s Types of Shape consists entirely of pattern poems. The shapes include a key, lightbulb, harpsichord, bell, sundial, lazy Susan, kitty, kitty with bug, the state of New York, a double helix, a swan with its reflection. These poems, however, can still be read aloud.”
© 2008 Janice Harayda. All rights reserved.