The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt. Grades 4-7. Atheneum Books for Young Readers, July 2013. 336 pages. Reviewed from egalley provided by publisher.
Raccoon scouts Bingo and J'miah are on duty by themselves for the first time. They remember the rules: "always heed the Voice of Intelligence, and in the event of an emergency, wake the Sugar Man." So when word comes that a posse of wild hogs is on its way to Sugar Man Swamp (sure to destroy everything in its wake), Bingo and J'miah must figure out how to wake the Sugar Man... but no one's seen him in decades...
Chap Brayburn has a mission of his own: to protect his home. Nothing's been right since his beloved grandpa Audie died, but now their landlord's raising the rent, planning to turn this patch of swamp into an arena for alligator wrestling. The only way to save his home is to come up with a boatload of money or prove the Sugar Man's existence... but how?
Kathi Appelt once again shows her master storyteller chops with her latest novel. The language! The characters! I seriously felt like I was sitting down with Kathi and she was spinning this yarn right in front of me. Some passages read just like a storyteller was saying them out loud. This story is evocative of those animal classics and will make a fabulous family readaloud.
Appelt's sense of place is also masterful. She brings the Texas bayou to life once again, just as she did in The Underneath. Readers are treated to the sights and sounds of the swamp and meet wonderful characters, both animal and human. And there are good characters and not-so-good characters in both the animal and human worlds here. The overarching goal for the good guys of all species is protecting the land from threats. This is a book with a strong (but not heavy-handed) environmental message, celebrating the importance of preserving the wetlands as a habitat for both animals and conscientious humans.
I loved Kathi's previous Newbery-honor-winning novel The Underneath, but it's a book that I place carefully into the hands of youngsters because it's a very intense and emotional story. The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is similar in setting and in the storytelling voice, but the tone is much lighter and I think this will definitely have a wide audience. There's a lot of humor and repeated phrasing... it was simply a delight to read.
Readers who enjoyed the animal characters will want to pick up other classic animal tales like Charlotte's Web by E.B. White and The Cricket in Times Square by George Selden and The Mouse and the Motorcycle by Beverly Cleary. Kathi Appelt's storytelling style has the feel of a classic and I think this is one that'll be sticking around for a long time to come.
Readers intrigued by the environmental issues and the quest to protect the land might enjoy Hoot by Carl Hiaasen.
Readers who love the strong sense of place and the Texas bayou setting (and the strong storytelling-style writing) might enjoy Kathi Appelt's earlier novel The Underneath, although you should definitely be aware that the tone is much different.
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp will be on shelves July 23!