Newbery Buzz: True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

true blue scoutWe’re coming down to the wire with our Newbery discussions. The ALA Youth Media Awards (which include the Newbery and Caldecott) will be announced Monday morning. Janie and I feel confident that we’ve touched on some of the better contenders. But we may be completely surprised! Today, we look at a National Book Award finalist (see our review of the National Book Award winner). Friday, we’ll look at one final possibility.

Announcement-Time!

Before I jump into our discussion of this novel, I have a Newbery-related announcement to make: I hope to be physically present at the awards ceremony this coming Monday! I’ll be attending ALA-Midwinter (one of the two big yearly conferences for the ALA). Seating is first come, first served for the awards press conference, but I’m willing to stand in line! I hope to report next week on the conference as a whole, trends that I notice, and the like. I’ll also be tweeting from the awards announcement using my personal account.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum, 2013, 327 pages.  Age/interest level: 8-12.

Betsy: The Sugar Man Swamp is the distinctive setting for this folksy tale. The True Blue Scouts are Bingo and J’miah, two raccoons who are proudly carrying on their family’s long lineage as scouts for the mythical Sugar Man himself. Reminiscent of Big Foot in size and with a passionate love of sugar cane, the Sugar Man protects the swamp from outside threats. The scouts’ job is to notify the Sugar Man about these threats while he lays low in his den. Add in 12-year-old Chap who is grieving the loss of his grandfather (both of whom cherish the swamp), his hard-working mother who makes her livelihood selling famous sugar pies from the local sugar cane, some feral pigs racing like mad towards the sugar cane, and two super villains in the form of a town bigwig and larger-than-life alligator-wrestling Jaeger Stitch (who both want to turn the swamp into a giant amusement park), and you’ve got the makin’s of a tall tale sure enough.

This tale begs to be read aloud with its strong voice and folksy feel. Short chapters keep the reader jumping between characters until everyone meets up in the grand climactic final scenes. Both animals and people talk, although not so much to each other, and the reader is kept in suspense until the final showdown. Some of the characters are overdrawn (such as the nefarious gator wrestler), but the raccoons and Chap are charming. Janie, I’d say that the setting is the most distinctive feature of this book, and as a result, there’s a strong environmental undercurrent running throughout the book. What struck you most about True Blue Scouts? Is it as strong a book as most people seem to think?

Janie: In a lot of ways, it is. I was a little impatient with it at first, with the super-short chapters and jumping from one POV to another—and I thought she’d never get to the end of her character list! But it really doesn’t take too long for the story to come together and get moving. And even though we have a pretty good idea where it’s headed (the Sugar Man will show up, Chap and his mom will save the swamp, and all the villains will get their comeuppance), the author still throws in a twist or two. Oversize characters actually work in a story like this. I agree with you about the voice, and the book is a great choice for reading aloud. Some of the language is a bit overdone, but a lot of it is great fun. Here’s a random example, describing how raccoons get around: “One mode of transportation they don’t do is flight, and that can be excused for lack of wingage.”

True Blue Scouts has a clear environmentalist slant, with its nasty-ol’-developer storyline, but I feel it was handled gracefully and not too preachily. Chap’s beloved grandfather is remembered as saying, “We live on their land [the local wildlife], not the other way round.” This is overstatement, to say the least, as if humans were interlopers on “nature.” But I appreciated the way Grandpa Audie and his family feel about their home. Most of us would not consider a swamp to be paradise, but the inhabitants of this swamp, human and otherwise, love and cherish it. As part of God’s green earth, it has its own lush, sultry, snaky beauty (even if I wouldn’t want to live there). Did you have any thoughts about the worldview, Betsy?

Betsy: I think you nailed it, Janie, as usual: the idea that we–humans–are the interlopers and that nature is complete in and of itself is clearly communicated here. At best (in the book’s premise), we partner with nature and try not to mess it up. A bit of a different perspective than our view that humans are caretakers of God’s creation. Nonetheless, we are called to steward it well; destroying large natural resources in favor of “progress” is not usually the best approach. Appelt’s previous novels are dark and sobering, but she was challenged to write a funny book this time. I think she delivers in the sense that this is a rollicking good tale and full of quirky twists and turns. She’s a gifted writer, and this book is fun to read.

  • Worldview rating (out of 5): 3.75
  • Literary rating: 4
For more Newbery Buzz discussions, see Counting by 7s, Flora & Ulysses, The Real Boy, and The Center of Everything. Other books we’ve reviewed on Redeemed Reader that are getting Newbery buzz in some circles include The Thing About Luck, Jinx, The Water CastleHokey Pokey, One Came Home, and P.S. Be Eleven

Image from goodreads

 

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