This was the last of the Cybils Middle Grade Spec Fic finalists, which I’m just now getting around to reviewing. As a bonus, in the meantime, it was also named a National Book Award Finalist.
“Librarians often say that every book is not for every child, but The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is” (The New York Times). Meet Bingo and J’miah, raccoon brothers on a mission to save Sugar Man Swamp in this rollicking tale and National Book Award Finalist from Newbery Honoree Kathi Appelt.
Raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah are the newest recruits of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts. The opportunity to serve the Sugar Man—the massive creature who delights in delicious sugar cane and magnanimously rules over the swamp—is an honor, and also a big responsibility, since the rest of the swamp critters rely heavily on the intel of these hardworking Scouts.
Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is not a member of any such organization. But he loves the swamp something fierce, and he’ll do anything to help protect it.
And help is surely needed, because world-class alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch wants to turn Sugar Man swamp into an Alligator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, and the troubles don’t end there. There is also a gang of wild feral hogs on the march, headed straight toward them all.
The Scouts are ready. All they have to do is wake up the Sugar Man. Problem is, no one’s been able to wake that fellow up in a decade or four…
Animal fantasy is often not my thing – I probably wouldn’t have picked this up if it hadn’t been a Cybils finalist. But it was a whole lot of fun, with kid appeal coming from every angle. The story is told mostly from the points of view of the raccoon Scouts and the human boy Chap. The Scouts and Chap both know that the swamp is in trouble, but they know about different things, and they don’t know that the other species either knows or is trying to do anything about it. The Scouts are scrappy young things, full of mischief and dedication in equal measure, though with their own distinct personalities. Chap has recently lost his beloved grandfather, who had lived with him and his mother. Since his death, Chap has been feeling the burden of being the Man of the Family, while also trying to solve the mysteries that his grandfather left behind in stories and in scraps in his sketchbook: his lost DeSoto, and with it, the photos he took of the supposedly extinct Lord God Bird. Short asides into the history of the swamp and its flora and fauna bring it even more vividly to life.
It only takes the reader a little while to figure out that Chap’s grandfather’s lost DeSoto is the very same car that the Scouts use as their headquarters, keeping someone on watch in it because sometimes, it comes to life and a Voice speaks words of truth from it, which the Scouts need to be on hand to hear. This kind of dovetailing comes into play throughout the story, as characters, objects, and phrases from one part of the story connect with those in another. It’s told in short, exciting chapters and vibrant, colloquial but rich language. Paths converge, objects go flying into the air, and over all hangs the rich scent of the fried sugar pies that Chap’s mother makes for a living. This is the perfect blend of excitement and humor, with a nice dollop of environmentalism.