“Finn was in a horrible mood. Grandpa wanted to talk about it. Finn did not.” So begins author-illustrator Cori Doerrfeld’s picture book that captures what we truly need when we’re not ready to talk about what is happening underneath the surface.
When we first see Finn, the child is little more than a lump, sitting on a bed and covered by a patchwork quilt. To the left of the bed is a sewing machine, and hanging on the wall above is a wedding portrait of Grandpa and Grandma. Instead of pushing his grandchild into a conversation, Grandpa suggests a walk, and Finn reluctantly agrees. The two set off with Finn still wrapped tightly in the quilt, their nose peeking out from its folds.
As the pair walk into a dense forest that teems with life, Grandpa notes the many things happening that can’t be seen: root systems of trees growing underground, fish swimming under the surface of the water, eggs staying warm in a nest beneath a bird and more. In each spread, Finn emerges a little bit more from beneath the quilt. First we see Finn’s face, then a puff of reddish hair, then the sleeves of a blue sweater.
Doerrfeld’s digital paint illustrations are richly colored and detailed, featuring the soft, crayonlike textures that have become her signature. Scenes that reveal secrets hidden within hollow trees and underground burrows feel cozy and safe, evoking the way Finn must feel under the quilt. Especially moving is a scene in which Grandpa and Finn come across several other groups of walkers: an older person with a dog, an adult and a crying child, and a person using a wheelchair sharing headphones with a companion. Doerrfeld’s X-ray vision artwork shows readers the different thoughts and emotions of each person, a testimony to how varying our experiences can be even amid a shared moment.
Beneath is a rare picture book that truly meets both young readers and adults where they are. Its tenderness and sense of wonder will appeal to children. They’ll relate to Finn’s initial conviction that some things feel too hard for anyone else to understand, as well as the deeper longing to have such feelings validated. Meanwhile, Grandpa’s desire to offer Finn comfort and validation will resonate with adults.
As Grandpa seeks to care for Finn, he also creates an opportunity for Finn to care for him, and it’s this depiction of mutual care that makes Beneath so extraordinary. Witnessing the love between these two characters gives readers of all ages a beautiful model of how we can truly support one another when we need it most.