The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp
By Kathi Appelt, illustrated by Jennifer Bricking
Published 2013 by Atheneum Books for Young Readers
Chap Brayburn is reeling after the death of his beloved grandfather, Audie. Not only that, but Sonny Boy Beaucoup has plans to level Chap's house - and the family business - to make an alligator wrestling arena and theme park. Meanwhile, Bingo and J'miah, two of the famous Scouts, begin to hear some rumbles and know they must undertake a mission to wake up the Sugar Man and protect the swamp.
I know I have mentioned a time or two (or twenty) that talking animals are not my favorite type of fantasy. Despite that, however, I continue to try reading them because, every once in a while, I am pleasantly surprised (just wait for my forthcoming review of Mr. and Mrs. Bunny - Detectives Extraordinaire!). In addition to my willingness to continue to subject myself to this kind of fantasy, I had previously listened to Appelt's first book, The Underneath, and, despite my misgivings about the subgenre, thoroughly enjoyed it. Coupled with the buzz surrounding this one (new releases by Newbery winners and honorees always get some buzz), I requested the e-galley of this one and gave it a try.
There is no denying that Appelt truly has a talent for storytelling. The short chapters and the various story threads work well in this novel and in a way that I think will be appealing for young readers. Appelt's writing also succeeds in establishing place - I'm a relatively new Texan and can't say I've ever visited the swampy parts of Texas, but everything about Appelt's description of the land and creatures seemed spot-on to me. I truly enjoyed nearly everything about the way this story was written.
One area that I thought not as strong as the rest was the characterization. For a novel of this length, I expect some deeper characterization. In this case, the good guys come off as exceedingly good (Chap, Bingo, J'miah), while the bad guys come off as over-the-top villains (Sonny Boy, Jaeger, the hogs). I'd have appreciated a bit more nuance with the characters.
The story itself is interesting and relatively lighthearted. It's a fairly typical look at a boy dealing with his grief and reconfiguring his role in the family. What makes it atypical are the coincidences and strange happenings, as well as the long and involved backstory that brings the characters to where they are in the present. As I mentioned, Appelt is clearly a very skilled storyteller and she weaves everything together nicely.
I didn't love this as much as The Underneath, but it was still a lighthearted and fun fantasy, imbued with Southern charm.
Thanks to the publisher for a digital advance reader's copy, provided via Edelweiss.