Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was published last year. As I was talking with one of the staff at our local bookstore, Blue Marble Books, he highly recommended this book as one of his favorite releases of 2013. Considering how many books they read through, that was a high enough recommendation for me to put this book on my list of must-reads!
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The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp follows two raccoon brothers, guarding Sugar Man Swamp. They hide out in a rusted old car, listening for the Voice of Intelligence (i.e. the radio) for instructions. Meanwhile, on the edges of the swamp, a boy, Chap, and his mother are scrambling to save their little pie shack and their home. Chap’s grandfather, who dearly loved the swamp, had recently passed away, and the landlord has decided to evict Chap and his mother and sell off the swamp to turn it into the “Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park.” On top of it all, a pack of wild hogs are headed to the sugar cane the grows in the bayou, trampling and destroying everything in their path. Events run parallel throughout the book, culminating in the ultimate question of how to save Sugar Man Swamp.
To be honest, I didn’t love this book. Maybe it’s because I was raised in Alabama, so most books set in the South feel more like a caricature than like the actual place. Even still, it was a charming story, with several complicated threads to follow.
The message of The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is that we should not forget that we are all connected to nature. What we do impacts the land around us.
The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is pretty clean. Some parents might be concerned about the supernatural idea of the Swamp Man, a sort of “Big Foot” creature that sleeps for 60 years. There are a few references to alcohol (consumed by the villains), and a little language. Please see the details below.
My Mom-Meter gives The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp an overall safety rating of 1 (Safe) for ages 7 and up.
The Lexile rating for The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is 810L.
Category ratings (click on the category to see specifics):
The book begins with two raccoon brothers, Bingo and J’miah, who are starting their career as the new “True Blue Scouts” of Sugar Man Swamp. They are the part of a long tradition of raccoons that guard the “Voice of Intelligence” in a rusted car in the bayou. During thunderstorms, when lightning strikes the car, the radio will turn on briefly, and the Scouts must be on hand to listen and decide if the news is important enough to wake the Sugar Man. The Sugar Man is a magical creature, like a Yeti or Bigfoot. He sleeps deep in the heart of the swamp with his friend Gertrude, a huge rattlesnake. The Sugar Man is huge, and has a temper. If he is riled, he may throw creatures far and wide. He loves the sweet sugar cane that grows on the edge of the swamp, but has spent the last 60 years sleeping.
Next, we meet Chap, a 12-year-old boy, mourning the recent loss of his grandfather. Chap and his mother had lived with Grandpa Audie most of Chap’s life. They ran a small pie shop called Paradise Pie Shack, selling sugar pies made from the sugar cane in the swamp. Their landlord, Sonny Boy Beaucoup, has decided to evict the pie shop and put a “Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park” over the swamp. This is terrible news for Chap and his mother, not just because the shop was their livelihood, but also because Grandpa Audie had loved the swamp. He drew the wildlife in it in his notebook, and even swore that he had seen the rare Ivory-Billed Woodpecker. He had taken a photo of it 40 years ago, but could not find it now. If Audie could prove the bird lived in the swamp, he could get the swamp protected from development. Chap decides that he needs to find proof that the Ivory-Billed Woodpecker lives there in order to keep from being evicted.
In the mean time, the evil landlord Sonny Boy Beaucoup tosses out a joke that he wants a “boatload of cash” to change his mind about evicting Chap and his mother. Chap works out a plan to get this boatload of cash by advertising on the local radio station and putting up more signs. Chap and his mother make lots and lots of sugar pies, and they sell lots and lots of pies. The small boat they own slowly fills up with cash as business picks up.
Bingo and J’miah hear the “Voice of Intelligence” one night, and the radio announcer says that a herd of wild hogs is headed to the Sugar Man Swamp. This particular herd is exceptionally vicious and destructive, but the True Blue Scouts do not know that. They only know that wild hogs could tear up the swamp and eat all the sugar cane, and the scouts do not have much time before the herd will arrive. They begin to search for the Sugar Man in the deepest part of the swamp, cautiously because of Gertrude, the rattlesnake that lived with Sugar Man. The scouts would have to get past her to talk to the Sugar Man. Thankfully, by the time they found her, she wasn’t interested in eating the raccoons, but the Sugar Man was sound asleep and there were only 2 ways to wake up the Sugar Man. One way was for Gertrude to bite him (resulting in the Sugar Man waking up angry and possibly throwing the raccoons far up in the air) or the smell of sugarcane would wake him up pleasantly. The True Blue Scouts head out to get some sugarcane, only to realize the canebrake is guarded by a ton of canebrake rattlers. The raccoons cannot get near the sugarcane, and it looks like they will fail as True Blue Scouts until they hear the “Voice of Intelligence” back at the car, advertising the Paradise Pie Shack. When they hear that the pies are make from sugarcane, the raccoons sneak over to the restaurant and steal pies.
Chap wakes up to discover the missing pies. Thankfully, there are still plenty of pies and they have a record day of sales after the advertising on the radio and signs. But even if he does manage to save the cafe, the swamp is still in danger. Sonny Boy had jokingly told Chap that if Chap could prove the existence of the Sugar Man, Sonny Boy would deed the entire swamp to Chap, writing the deed in his own blood. Sonny Boy Beaucoup inherited the Sugar Man Swamp from a pirate ancestor who had sworn to the Swamp Man that he and his descendants would leave the swamp alone. The ancestor had written his promise in blood, and the document was displayed at the family plantation. Sonny Boys’ own father had died on mysterious circumstances in the swamp, but that had to be a coincidence. The closer to time to break ground and start the Gator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, the more nervous Sonny Boy felt, but of course, he didn’t really believe in the Sugar Man.
Sonny Boy and Jaeger Stitch(the world champion gator wrestler, who happens to be female) invite 22 dignitaries to the groundbreaking ceremony at the canebrake. They are all dressed up, and stop at the Paradise Pie Shack for pies before the ceremony. Chap shows Sonny Boy the boat practically full of money, and Sonny Boy laughs. He said that he meant a hatch-full of money, and Chap is humiliated in front of all the dignitaries. As they leave, Chap realizes they are headed for the rattler-infested canebrake, and he tries to stop them, but no one listens. Thankfully, the rattlesnakes give warning, and Sonny Boy, Jaeger, and all the dignitaries take off running for their stretch Hummer, and get out of the area fast!
As all of that is happening, the raccoons face a dilemma. Unfortunately, the True Blue Scouts could not help eating all but one of the pies they stole from Paradise Pie Shack, and when they finally carried that one last pie to the Sugar Man, Gertrude ate it before they could stop her! Thankfully, she has loud burp, and the sweet smell of sugarcane that was in that burp pleasantly woke up the Sugar Man. He is told about the herd of wild hogs, and the Sugar Man takes off through the swamp with the raccoons. They arrive just as the hogs have started into the sugarcane. The Sugar Man grabs the hogs and throws them far and wide.
Chap, who had gone running to warn the dignitaries of the rattlers, runs to the canebrake in time to come face-to-face with the Sugar Man. The Sugar Man recognizes Chap as the grandson of his friend, Audie. Chap did not have the presence of mind to take a photo of him as proof to Sonny Boy. That night, he can’t sleep, and decides to look for the Sugar Man to take a photo. Along the way, he discovers the old rusted car that was his grandfather’s. When Chap looks in the car, he discovers photos that his grandfather took of the woodpecker and the Sugar Man. Chap then faces the moral dilemma of exposing the Sugar Man to save the swamp, knowing that the publicity would bring hunters and tourists that would destroy the swamp and possibly imprison the Sugar Man. Ultimately, Chap chooses to leave the photos in the car, to protect the Sugar Man.
Unbeknownst to Chap, the hogs that the Sugar Man threw had flown through the air and landed on the front porch of Sonny Boy’s family plantation. Sonny Boy took that as a sign to get out of town. He quickly wrote a deed in blood, giving the entire swamp to Chap, and then packed up and left for good. The swamp was safe, the Paradise Pie Shack was safe, and the Sugar Man was safe. And, hopefully, the ivory-billed woodpecker would return to the swamp again.
- Chap’s grandpa had just died a few days before the start of the story. This might raise some fears for some kids.
- The radio announcer, Coyoteman Bill, decides not to announce the groundbreaking ceremony on the radio, even tough he told Sonny Boy he would. He crosses his fingers when he tells Sonny Boy that he will announce it. Did Coyoteman Bill do the right thing, even though he was lying?
- Chap warns his enemies that they are headed for danger when they go to break ground in the canebrake. Did Chap do the right thing? What would you do in his situation?
- When Chap finds the photo of the Sugar Man, he has a dilemma. What would you do in Chap’s situation?
- Beer cans are mentioned floating in the bayou.
- It is mentioned that pirates are “drinking grog” and singing.
- A wild hog shows his love a 3 acre tobacco field, and she chews every leaf.
- The villains drink mint juleps, and it influences them.
- Sonny drinks some “aged brandy in the crystal decanter.”
- It is mentioned that Jaeger Stitch and Sonny Boy met because of “a bad roll of the dice” at a “gambling casino in New Orleans.”
- There are multiple references to the raccoons burping, and Gertrude burps once after eating a sugar pie (and that burp saves the day).
- “Throwing up” is mentioned once in passing.
- The term “pooped” is used to refer to being tired twice.
- After Grandpa Audie died, “it seemed like all heck was breaking loose.”
- “Darned” is used.
- “Give a flip” is used once.
- The ivory-bill woodpecker is also called a “Lord God Bird” or a “Good-God Bird.” (This is a real name for the bird.)
- Sonny Boy says “Lord God” as an interjection.
- “Yowzers!” is used once.
- “Stupid” is used several times.
- “‘Great balls of fire!’ Chap cried. (Okay, he didn’t really says that, but we can’t repeat his true words in polite company.)”
- “Booty” is used a few times describing the sugar pies as so good, they will “kick your booty.”
- “‘Jeepers creepers!’ [Chap] said right out loud. (Okay, that’s not really what he said, but it’s close enough.)”
- The Sugar Man is a swamp creature, compared to Sasquatch, Barmanou, and Yeti. He is called a “cryptid.”
- A “Wendigo” is mentioned briefly. It’s a demonic creature.
- A raccoon “wishes on a star” (actually a blinking radio light), and the wish is granted.
- Jaeger Stitch thinks she is “rather like a goddess” in the gator wrestling community.
- “Luck” or “being lucky” are referred to a few times.
- Sonny Boy feels like his ancestor’s portrait is watching him.
- The ivory-billed woodpecker is referred to as a “Ghost Bird” twice.
- The phrase “dead to the world” is used once.
- Leroy, the chauffeur, thinks that “Jaeger Stitch was no angel.”
- Leroy drives off without Jaeger, and she jumps onto the stretch Hummer. He sees her, and for a moment thinks she is a ghost.
- Chap thinks all the dignitaries “looked like horrid little trolls.”
- Chap watches the raccoons vanish into the swamp, and he thinks they vanished “like ghosts.”
- The radio announcer, Coyoteman Bill, decides not to announce the groundbreaking ceremony on the radio, even tough he told Sonny Boy he would. He crosses his fingers when he tells Sonny Boy that he will announce it.
Potentially Offensive Behavior:
- Chap thinks of the Gator Wrestling Arena idea as turning the swamp into a “freak show”
- In the story about Sonny Boy’s pirate ancestor, it is mentioned that the drunk pirates sang loudly about “lost loves.”
- It is mentioned that the wild feral hogs, Buzzie and Clydine fall in love.
- While drinking, Jaeger Stitch has “a odd urge to… Well, okay… She briefly thought about kissing Sonny Boy, an urge that both disgusted and thrilled her all at the same time.”
- Later, before the groundbreaking ceremony, Jaeger “sort of wanted to kiss [Sonny Boy], an urge that made her feel somewhat sick to her stomach… For his part, Sonny Boy had no desire to kiss Jaeger Stitch. He’d just as soon kiss the Sugar Man.”
- The Sugar Man “His legs and arms were like the new cedars trees that were taking root all around, tough and sinuous. His hands were as wide and big as palmetto ferns. His hair looked just like the Spanish moss that hung on the north side of the cypress trees, and the rest of his body was covered in rough black fur… whenever he gets mad, he tends to throw things. All in all, it’s not a good idea to stir up the wrath of the Sugar Man.“
- Chap’s grandpa had just died a few days before the start of the story. This might raise some fears for some kids.
- There are several references to the dangers of the swamp: alligators, water moccasins, carnivorous pitcher plants, canebrake rattlers, brown recluse spiders, and scorpions.
- Bingo the raccoon is afraid that he will fall out of a tree and into alligator-infested waters.
- It is mentioned that, years ago, a group of men formed a posse to capture the Sugar Man with ropes, axes, and shotguns.
- In the story about Sonny Boy’s pirate ancestor, it is mentioned that the pirates had cannons, muskets, and swords.
- Sonny Boy’s pirate ancestor used his blood as ink to write a promise not to disturb the swamp. Later, Sonny Boy jokingly makes a promise to sign something in blood, and at the end of the story, he does it.
- Chap carries a machete for cutting sugarcane.
- The canebrake rattlers attack the Sugar Man, so he throws them in the water, and the alligators are about to eat the rattlers when the Sugar Man saved the snakes, and they are loyal to him.
- Arrows, guns, and traps are mentioned.
- Jaeger Stitch craves wrestling alligators and putting them in headlocks.
- It is mentioned that someone was “bit by a copperhead and lived to tell about it.”
- It is mentioned that Chap’s dad died in a motorcycle accident.
- Chap tries to figure out how to scare off the raccoons. He wishes he had a gun to shoot at them or to shoo over their heads. He ends up setting non-violent traps (that the raccoons avoid).
- Jaeger uses a long pole with a point on the end of it to jab the alligators and move them onto trailers. Leroy thinks she could easily use it as a spear.
- The dignitaries were “screaming bloody murder” after hearing the snakes.
From a ten-year-old’s perspective: “I really liked this book because it was a little like My Side of the Mountain. I liked that it was written from several different perspectives. It made me want to go camping. Kids 9+ would enjoy this book – especially if they like animals and nature.”
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