Trust me when I say, don’t read Kathi Appelt’s latest book, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. Books like hers deserve to be heard. So do whatever it takes to optimize your experience. Find an elementary school teacher or librarian who does story-time, coerce your parents/child/sibling/spouse/kindly neighbor into reading to you, or listen to the audio recording. But don’t just read it–unless you’re reading it aloud.
True Blue Scouts flows as languidly as a long summer’s day on the porch with a glass of cool lemonade and a chatty relative. Equally whimsical but less melancholy or heart-wrenching than the The Underneath or Keeper, it’s adorably simple, silly, and sweet.
The tale opens with scouts Bingo and J’miah, who monitor Sugar Man Swamp–home of the elusive ivory-billed woodpecker (IBWP), incomparable local canebrake sugar, mouthwatering fried sugar pies, and legendary Sugar Man–from the headquarters of a vintage 1949 DeSoto. When Bingo and J’maih, who are racoons by the way, notice an ominous rumble-rumble-rumble-rumble headed in their direction, they have no choice but to rouse the Sugar Man to protect the swamp. Meanwhile, unbeknownst to them, humans Mr. Sonny Boy Beaucoup and Ms. Jaegar Stitch are scheming to evict twelve-year-old Chap and his mom from their house-cum-cafe (home of the world’s best sugar pies) so they can build an alligator wrestling arena and theme park over the swamp. The only things stopping Sonny–a boatload of cash or proof of the Sugar Man’s existence. And the only thing that will wake the Sugar Man from his slumber? A snip-snap-zip-zap from Gertrude, his serpentine companion, or the aroma of fresh canebrake sugar.
You can see right away where this story is going, but there’s a charm about Appelt’s catchy colorful prose that makes True Blue Scouts impossible to put down. Also fun, Appelt deliberately uses a word or idea from the last sentence of the current chapter as a transition into the following chapter. In effect, it’s like the storyteller is jostling his or her memory every time he or she switches over to the next character’s POV. Best of all, Appelt’s wonderful use of rhythm and repetition turns a fairly short story (the events take place over the matter of days) into something special and worth savoring.
Have a taste:
“Got to go way, way back into yesterday and the yesterday before that, maybe a million yesterdays, actually more than a million, a gazillion yesterdays, to hear about the Sugar Man.”
“Every denizen in the swamp knew that the wrath of the Sugar Man was something to avoid. He also had a rattlesnake pet, Gertrude. Crotalus horridus GIGANTICUS.”
Come on, chant with me: “Crotalus horridus GIGAN-TICUS. CHG!”
The one thing I thought Scouts was lacking–illustrations. (Yes, I recognize the irony of telling you to listen to the audio recording, and then insisting on illustrations to go with the text.) It should be a rule that animal stories come part and parcel with illustrations. There were several laugh-out-loud scenes I would have loved to see on paper.
To my surprise, Appelt’s descriptions didn’t leave me hankering for a homemade fried sugar pies, but she did spark my interest in the ivory-billed woodpecker. It’s time to put The Race to Save the Lord God Bird on the reading list. IBWP!