Skip to main content

Reading Discussion Guides

The Underneath by Kathi Appelt

About the Book

An abandoned calico cat hears the lonely howl of a hound dog deep in the backwaters of the bayou, and sets out to find him. When they finally meet, Mama the calico cat and Ranger the bloodhound form a bond, forged in loneliness and fueled by fierce love. They become a family and Ranger urges Mama to remain under the porch to protect her and her kittens from Gar Face — the evil man living inside the house. They’ll be safe in the Underneath… as long as they stay there. But in a moment of curiosity, one of the kittens sets off an astonishing chain of events that reverberates through the bayou, and brings the past together with the present in remarkable ways.

Pre-Reading Activity

  • The action in the book takes place in the marshy swampland and deep forests of Texas’s bayou region. Research bayous and their ecosystems. In what parts of the world do bayous exist? What kinds of plants and animals live in bayous? How are bayous similar to and different from other ecological environments — for example, what do bayous have in common with the Florida Everglades, and how do the two areas differ?
  • Long before the Europeans settled along the Gulf Coast, a varied group of Native Americans live in the piney woods of East Texas and Louisiana. Learn more about these people, collectively known as the Caddo. Why did they leave their original homeland? What were some of the things that they were famous for? How did they learn to survive in the marshy swamps of their native territory?

Discussion Questions

  • Until he meets Mama, Ranger doesn’t realize how lonely he is; he muses that when Mama found him, he “didn’t know that he needed to not be so solitary until at last he wasn’t.” What are the differences between being alone, and being lonely? Is it possible to be lonely even when you’re surrounded by people?
  • As Gar Face captures Sabine in the yard, Ranger goes wild with fury and lunges at Gar Face, knocks him down, and bites him on the leg — allowing Sabine to escape. Were you surprised at Ranger’s reaction? Why didn’t Gar Face expect that Ranger might behave this way?
  • “You have to go back for your sister. If something happens to me, promise you’ll find her.” Did you think that Puck would be able to keep this promise to his mother? Talk about some other promises made by characters in the novel; were they kept? How, and at what cost?
  • Dogs and cats are supposed to hate each other, yet Ranger and Mama become close friends. Discuss their unlikely friendship — what were some of the things they have in common? What are other unusual friendships portrayed in the book? Do you have a friend who, on the surface, seems like someone you wouldn’t ordinarily like? Why do you get along with this person?

Extension Activities

  • The voices of birds, animals, and reptiles tell most of the story in The Underneath. Write your own story from a creature’s point of view, whether it’s a household pet, or animal in the wild, or bird, reptile, fish, or some other living thing.
  • The book’s last chapter contains a passage about the trees of the bayou, how they could tell us what happened to Ranger, Sabine, and Puck after the story ends. Write a new last chapter for The Underneath, detailing what the three animals have done since they were reunited.
  • In the book, the hummingbird is described as an “intermediary” and “messenger,” a being that is able to travel between life and death because it can fly so quickly. Research the mythology of some of the wild creatures in The Underneath — such as snakes, alligators, or hawks — and create a report about one. Illustrate your report with pictures or drawings.