The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

I think Kathy Appelt is a polarizing author; you either love her style of storytelling or you really find it annoying. I love it.

I thought her tale of hound dog and kittens in the Big Thicket of East Texas, The Underneath, was excellent storytelling, and it should have won the Newbery in 2009 instead of Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, which I didn’t like at all. As for last year’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp—it should have won something because it’s just as delicious (cane sugar fried pies) and delightful (raccoon scouts who live inside an old rusted De Soto) as The Underneath was.

Again, as in The Underneath, Ms. Appelt’s style takes some getting used to. The chapters, or scenes, are very short, two to four pages each, and the focus and point of view are constantly switching form one set of characters and one plot strand to another. But at the end everything converges in the East Texas swampland that made the setting of The Underneath so memorable.

If the setting is the same, True Blue Scouts has all new characters: Bingo and J’miah, Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts; twelve year old Chapparal Brayburn who has just become the man of the house after the death of his beloved grandfather; Jaeger Stitch, World Champion Gator Wrestler of the Northern Hemisphere; Sonny Boy Beaucoup, current owner of the Sugar Man Swamp, Buzzie and Clydine, leaders of the Farrow Gang of feral hogs; and of course, the Sugar Man himself, “taller than his cousin Sasquatch, taller than Barmanou, way taller than the Yeti. His arms were like the cedar 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 . . . You could say that he was made up of bits and pieces of every living creature in the swamp, every duck, fx lizard, and catfish, every pitcher plant, muskrat, and termite.”

And the plot is complicated by a white “Lord God bird” that may or may not be mythical, a 1949 De Soto lost in the swamp, the delicious-ness of Brayburn fried pies, sugar cane guarded by a whole nest of canebrake rattlers, and the rapacious greed of Jaeger Stitch and Sonny Boy Beaucoup. If you liked The Underneath, The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is a must read. If you disliked the animal abuse that was part of the story in The Underneath, then be assured that no animals (except maybe alligators and even the alligators survive) are harmed in the reading of this book. Some readers might be offended by the way that Appelt uses “Lord God” as a sort of exclamation in a couple of places as well as being the name of the bird, but I thought it was a sort of prayer or invocation of the blessing of God himself. Plus, if you were to read this book aloud, as it begs to be shared, you could leave those references out.

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp was a National Book Award finalist, but why Kathy Appelt keeps being honored and runner-upped instead of taking the prize, I don’t know. Maybe it’s that polarizing thing I mentioned. At any rate, award or no, you will enjoy True Blue Scouts. No question about it. Unless you’re at the opposite pole.

Jinx by Sage Blackwood

Jinx is your basic, orphaned in the forest, boy hero, who becomes a wizard’s apprentice. Jinx’s curiosity is, of course, sometimes too much for his capabilities. It all reminds me of this scene from Fantasia:

I really enjoyed Jinx. It’s a story with lots of questions–and elements from various old stories:
Who is Jinx? Why and how does he “see” people’s emotions and “hear” the language of the trees in the Urwald (forest)?

Is Simon Magus, the magician to whom Jinx becomes a servant, evil or good? What about his wife, Sophie? Who is she? What is the place she comes from, Samara?

Why can’t Jinx read Dame Glammer the Witch the way he reads others’ thoughts and feelings?

What is the Terror that the trees of the Urwald are afraid of?

What is the curse that binds Jinx’s new friends, Elfwyn and Reven? And how can their respective curses be removed?

Is Jinx also cursed? How?

Who is the Bonemaster? Will he help–or is he even more evil than Simon?

Lots of questions. If you read to the end of the book, you’ll get some answers—and be presented with a new set of puzzles, a perfect set-up for the second book in the planned trilogy, Jinx’s Magic.

Jinx is one of the books nominated for the Cybils Award in the category of Middle Grade Speculative Fiction. The winners of the Cybils will be announced on Friday the 14th, Valentine’s Day.

The Tiger and the Dried Persimmon by Janie Jaehyun Park

Picture Book Around the World: Reading Through Korea I’m working hard on my Picture Book Around the World sequel to Picture Book Preschool, my preschool read aloud curriculum for homeschooling your preschooler or kindergartner. This week at Semicolon, we’re going to be visiting Korea through the medium of a treasure trove of picture books featuring that country and its children.

Wikipedia: “Persimmons are eaten fresh, dried, raw, or cooked. When eaten fresh they are usually eaten whole like an apple or cut into quarters, though with some varieties it is best to peel the skin first. One way to consume very ripe persimmons, which can have the texture of pudding, is to remove the top leaf with a paring knife and scoop out the flesh with a spoon. Riper persimmons can also be eaten by removing the top leaf, breaking the fruit in half and eating from the inside out. The flesh ranges from firm to mushy, and the texture is unique. The flesh is very sweet.”

In Korea, according to this folktale that author Janie Park heard from her grandmother, dried persimmons were given to children as a sweet treat. I’ve never tried persimmon dried or any other way. Have you?

The tale itself features a foolish tiger, a crying baby, and a hapless thief. The tiger learn a lesson about pride, the baby gets a treat, and the thief turns into an honest man–all because of a bit of dried persimmon fruit. I’m not sure there is any moral to the story, but it is an incentive to think about tigers, persimmons, babies, and thieves–all subjects I’ve not thought much about, certainly not in conjunction with one another.

The illustrations are a bit oddball for my tastes–an orange tiger with blueish purple stripes? The author/illustrator says she used “gesso, to make a unique texture on the paper, and then . . . acrylics” to create “brilliant, swirling illustrations” in “modern adaptions of the grand Korean artistic tradition.” I’m not enough of an art expert or an expert on Korea to know how successful she has been, but I prefer my pictures more crisp and detailed, less blobby and texturized. Some other reviewer for Booklist said the tiger in Ms. Park’s illustrations was “a coiled calligraphic mass of fear.” “Each to his own.

I did like the story. Unlike many folktales, it’s just scary enough with the tiger, but not really violent or horrific. The tiger is rather silly in his misunderstanding of the interactions between baby and mother, and the thief reforms himself after his accidental wild tiger ride. Preschoolers and primary age children should enjoy this taste of Korean folklore.

Maybe they would also enjoy a Korean persimmon treat, too. You can purchase an 8 oz. bag of dried persimmon slices at Amazon for about $10.00.