The Underneath (Kathi Appelt)

I'm not sure that I have ever read a book whose cover art is more misleading than The Underneath.
 It looks like it might be the sweet little tale of a dog who makes friends with some cats, right?
The Underneath is the story of a little cat who is dropped off in the middle of a Louisiana swamp, punished for the unspeakable crime of becoming "with kitten." This new mother retreats to the first place of safety she can find, which unfortunately is the home of a cruel swamp-dweller (Gar Face) and his abused hound dog, Ranger. Dog meets cat, and they become best friends. They raise the new kittens (Puck and Sabine) together and live in cautious harmony until Gar Face sinks to new levels of cruelty and greed. "The Underneath" is the space underneath the porch, the only space where Ranger and his cats can avoid risk of all the horrible things in life. 
Interspersed throughout the story of Ranger, the mother cat, Puck, and Sabine is another dark, mystic tale involving a magical water moccasin and her own story of anger, loss, and revenge. Grandmother Moccasin and her BFF the Alligator King (who happens to be positively enormous) are on the warpath to make someone pay for all that she has lost...and Ranger and his cats better be sure that they don't cross paths with these ancient, angry, and hungry creatures. 

The Underneath is sad, dark, and full of injustice. It's very suspenseful, and filled with characters you just want to loathe. It's also filled with characters you love and will cheer on throughout their many unfair tribulations. It presents numerous opportunities for deep discussions, and is a great choice for book clubs in older elementary or middle school. The Underneath makes you think about how people's own personal wounds can either lead them to continue wounding others in the same way, or to break the cycle of revenge by forging a new path in life. It makes you appreciate the swampland ecosystem. It forces the reader to examine what, if anything, makes a person truly un-redeemable. 

And it also makes you love your own pets just a little bit more! And at the risk of turning this into a PSA: spay and neuter your pets, people! ;)