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Friday, September 27, 2013

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, written by Kathi Appelt. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, Simon & Schuster. 2013. $18.99 ages 9 and up

"Since they were both in agreement, they each picked up a Paradise Pie, and - sit down, brothers and sisters - they did not think they had ever tasted anything so rapturous in their entire lives. Not crawdads. Not blackberries. Not crickets. Not slugs. Not minnows. Nothing could compare. Those pies kicked their striped booties! They ate one pie each. Then just one more. Then really just one more."

Although I do not know her, I would like to add my thanks to Cynthia Leitich Smith for suggesting to this marvelous author that she should try writing a funny story. Kathi Appelt provides thanks in her acknowledgement; but, I just want Cynthia to know that her suggestion provided hours of enormous reading fun for me and is sure to do the same for any teacher, parent, grandparent or child who reads about Bingo, J'Miah, Chap, the Sugar Man, Coyoteman Jim, Grandpa Audie and the rest of the cast of memorable characters, both human and critter, that inhabit its pages. It is a real delight to spend time with them and makes this book perfect for reading aloud!

Bingo and J'Miah have just become the newest official information officers at Sugar Man Swamp. Their task is simple...listen to the Voice of Intelligence and wake the Sugar Man if insurmountable trouble seems imminent. Will they be able to find him if they need his help? He is reclusive, but he is the swamp's protector and his size strikes fear in everyone who has heard his story.  He's been asleep for sixty years; it seems that might soon come to an end, as trouble is brewing. No one wants to tangle with the Sugar Man:

 "The wrath of the Sugar Man was something to avoid. His bursts of anger were legendary, which we’ll discover soon enough. . . . Brothers and sisters, the stakes were high.”    

The author uses short chapters and ever-changing voices, cleverly-drawn characters and consistent plotting to keep her audience amused and always moving forward with the story. There are times when we go back to before Grandpa Audie's death. He was a man who loved nature, his family and had a special love for the Lord God bird. Having read Phillip Hoose's amazing nonfiction book The Race to Save the Lord God Bird (Farrar, 2004) gave me a special connection to Chap's grandfather. He remains a huge influence in Chap's life and, as readers, we understand their connection and Chap's grief at his loss.

 When the swamp is threatened with destruction by its greedy owner, and also by a marauding group of wild hogs, the narrator offers this advice:

"Mothers and fathers, lock your doors. Pull the covers up to your chinny chin chins. Head for the hills.”

There are a number of stories going on here, and Ms. Appelt deftly keeps all the balls in the air. There is never a time when those stories seem unrelated. They are each an integral part of an amazing whole. There's humor throughout and polished storytelling. I found myself going back to reread funny passages, just to enjoy the telling one more time. I know that once you have closed the book on its last page, someone is going to ask to borrow it, or you are going to want to share it with someone else!  It is a book for all ages!   

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