Chaparral Brayburn and his mom own a sugar pie shop in the Sugar Man Swamp in Texas. Chap’s grandpa, Audie Brayburn, moved down to the swamp in search of the ivory-billed woodpecker, also known as the Lord God Bird, decades ago. He swore that he saw it and even took a picture of it once when he first arrived. Unfortunately, he left the picture in his De Soto, abandoned in the swamp when he became ill and had to hike to the highway. When he got out of the hospital, he could never find the car again. Two raccoon brothers, Bingo and J’miah, did find it and made it their home and the headquarters of the True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp. J’miah found a box wedged underneath, and pulled out three snapshots that he set up as artwork on the dashboard: one is an armadillo, one an ivory-billed woodpecker, and one is the Sugar Man.
Sonny Boy Beaucoup’s great-great-greater-greatest grandfather had owned all of Sugar Man Swamp since before the Louisiana Purchase. Now Sonny Boy has teamed up with Jaeger Stitch, female alligator wrestler, to pave over acres and acres of swampland and create a theme park based on alligator wrestling. Chap’s mom is late on the rent, and since she can’t get the money together quickly, Sonny Boy is ready to throw them out and make the café part of the park. As a joke, he promises Chap that if he can present evidence of the Lord God Bird or the legendary Sugar Man, he will let them stay in the restaurant.
In the meantime, a sounder (that’s the group name) of feral hogs is headed to Sugar Man Swamp because they’ve heard about the delicious sugar cane. Along the way, they destroy everything in their path. So, with destruction closing in on two sides, someone needs to wake up the Sugar Man! But first, they have to get past his guardian rattlesnake, Gertrude. Unbeknownst to one another, Chap and the True Blue Scouts are all working on ways to find and wake the Sugar Man.
Kathi Appelt is an accomplished and prolific author who won a Newbery Honor for The Underneath in 2010. True Blue Scouts is also at the top of many prognosticators’ lists for this year’s Newbery and is a National Book Award finalist. Readers, I have to tell you, I don’t see it. The story itself is appealing: boy and animals try to save their homeland from destruction. However, I really did not have an emotional connection with Chap or the raccoons, much as I liked them both. Furthermore, Appelt has chosen to use a storyteller’s voice for this novel, and the voice doesn’t always sound like the same person. Most of the time, it is a down-homey, older voice, but occasionally it breaks into popular culture, such as on page 231, when she says, “That’s a lot of car, my homies.” Or on page 286, where she says “As soon as he returned home, he would burn that freaking document….” Freaking? It was just too inconsistent, and I think that is what forced me to keep all of the characters at arm’s length and never to be completely immersed in the story. I was always aware of the narrator.
You may be thinking that I am breaking my own promise never to review a book that I don’t like, but I did like it, actually. It was a very fun read blending realistic fiction with cryptids— always a kid-pleaser. I think it will be very popular, but I don’t think it deserves a Newbery medal. I’m sure I missed something, since everyone else thinks it’s great, but I just never felt the love.
Recommended for ages 9 and up.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.