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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

Kathi Appelt’s newest is another National Book Award Finalist that I think makes for interesting Newbery possibilities.  While very different in mood and characters than her Newbery Honor THE UNDERNEATH, I find the same sense of pacing here: leisurely and wandering between different viewpoints.  The storyteller’s voice is strong and becomes a character in itself, and it’s through the voice that the setting emerges.  I found the setting almost more compelling than the plot–it feels more present, and the plot is so unpacked and pieced along slowly that it seemed to take backstage to the players and the set.   There’s a heightened, exaggerated drama here that I think will turn readers either on or off.

So apropos of Vicky’s post, I have to examine my own reactions to the story.  First…instantly weary of the “da-dum” narration at the end of every short section.  End of section 1, p.5: “Brothers and sisters, the stakes were high.”  End of section 2, p.7 “All in all, it’s not a good idea to stir up the wrath of the Sugar Man.” End of section 3, p.9 “You heard me. The DeSoto.” etc.  Too frequent, hyper-dramatic and one-note.   However….as the story wears on, I get used to it, and think of an adult telling a story to a group, in small chunks, and leaving them at the end of an hour hanging for the next bit, tomorrow.   I’m still not sure how I come down on this.  It will be what I look for in my re-read.

Second…the story does wear on. The leisurely pace suits the tone and mood; but that leisure taken in such short chunks made it hard for me to stay engaged, and hard to remember where I was in the story.  Is this the small-reading-chunks problem?  Anyone read this in one long slug?  I may need to set myself up for a long-slug re-read.

Despite all that, by the end of the story I felt convinced, satisfied, and having borne witness to something “individually distinct.”  A couple of months later, I can’t recall the plot, one iota.  But I can recall the interior of the DeSoto as if I were one of the Scouts.  Does a Newbery book need to be memorable, or just need to be distinguished on first read?  Does it need to be the most distinguished on first read, or might it be one that gets better each time you read it?  I’ve seen all of the above garner a medal.

Nina Lindsay About Nina Lindsay

Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at


  1. I loved the narrative style of this book. I listed to it on audio (read by Lyle Lovett) which was brilliant. This book begs to be read aloud.

  2. Martha Meyer says:

    You haven’t lived until you’ve heard Lyle Lovett (THAT Lyle Lovett!) reading The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt (2013) on CD! Meet racoons Bingo and J’Miah (the true blue scouts) and 12 year old Chap Brayburn, the only creatures standing between the swamp and ecological disaster! This book is read aloud heaven. So — distinguished? Yes, for local color, ecological awareness, great characterization, real aloud-ability, love of land and country, and HUMOR! I don’t know if it will win the Newbery, but weeks later I can still hear Lyle speaking in my ear and smile because of Jaeger Stitch and her gator-kissing ways!

    • Jim Penson says:

      My first wife owned the bar that Kathi worked at, and Lyle often played, in College Station, Texas in the late 1970s. Other alums were Robert Earl Keen and Bryan Duckworth. Ken Appelt (then engaged to Kathi) also played there along with Kevin Duff.

  3. Jonathan Hunt says:

    This is easily one of my favorite middle grade reads of the year. It seems more light-hearted than her previous two books, and I do wonder whether that lack of gravitas makes it easier for us to dismiss it as a Newbery contender, but I think the distinguished elements of the text are fairly apparent, and the book deserves to be included in any list of contenders.

  4. One of my favorites too. I’m reading it aloud now to my 4th graders and they are enjoying it tremendously. The other day they were discussing who their favorite character is. Many named Gertrude. (We are about 2/3 through.) I said I might even go for Sonny Boy and Jaeger just because they are so deliciously bad!

  5. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    I wondered, while reading, if there were such a thing as sugar pies because I had never heard of them . . . but I’m guessing there are. Are they good?

  6. I think I read something where the author said they were made- up. I imagine they are like beignets, have to be eaten immediately after they are made. Yum. I’d love to know if anyone came up with a recipe for a variation.

  7. I was pleasantly surprised by this one. I’m not usually a big fan of the animal adventure genre but I was so charmed by Bingo, J’miah, and Chap. I didn’t mind the narrative voice- I thought it was consistent and believable as a folksy, gather-children-for-a-might-fine-tale voice. It absolutely begs to be read aloud (I can’t wait to listen to the Lyle Lovett audio.) I agree that the plot is at times slow-moving and meandering. But I think that is part of its charm. The molasses-drip pacing works for this genre and this kind of storytelling. It’s a campfire tale- and the narrator is milking it for all it’s worth. There are a lot of factors that help mediate the slow-style plot development: the super short chapters that end in mini-cliffhangers, the rich language, the see-it-smell-it-touch-it setting, the dialogue and details that build these wacky characters. I would agree that I don’t recall all the minute details of the story, but those scouts and that swamp have remained in my memory long after I finished the book. In terms of delineation of characters and setting, and the overall style- it scores high for me.

  8. This is in my top three. It does what it does to perfection. When it comes to style every word feels like part of the same piece. The jauntiness of the tone rang true from one end to the other. I split between the audio and print. Adored them both. I only did give a little (non-criteria) wish that there might have been an illustration or few as in her first two novels. Not that description was in anyway lacking. And yes Monica the villains were so wonderfully villainy. Bingo and J’miah were so completely identifiable. I’m happy when a strong contender shows up with appeal for our younger readers.

    Also, flying pigs!

  9. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    So interesting that so many have reacted so strongly to the audio. While committee members might listen to the audio for a re-read, the deliberations have to be based solely on the print experience. I do think the voice is very distinguished here, even without Lyle Lovett.

  10. I agree that this book scores high in the character, style and setting departments. I truly enjoyed it. Still, I think it falls short in terms of theme. What draws the narrative threads together thematically? I may be thinking along the same lines as Jonathan when he said this book lacks gravitas. It’s definitely excellent on the surface, but it didn’t have the literary heft or oomph that I want from the most distinguished children’s book of they year. How deep could an analysis of this book go? How does it help readers understand the world or themselves? (And, just to clarify, I don’t mean to say that the winner has to be a super serious book. HOLES is excellent fun on the surface while also offering a well-developed theme.)

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Thematically, I think this book very nicely combines “another dead grandparent book” (as Rachael Stein described The Center of Everything in her blog) with environmental conservation, the two coming together in the end with Chap’s decision to leave the Sugar Man Polaroid in the De Soto. The fact that these themes are guiding currents rather than hammers to the head make them no less effective, I think, and maybe is even a point in its favor. This is in my top three so far.

  11. Nina – I just read it all in one long slug (well, technically I went to sleep in between two sittings, but the second sitting was just the last 50 pages), and I had almost the opposite reaction to you about the plot. It all felt very propulsive and (to my adult eyes, but probably not to a 10-year-old) over-determined. All the separate threads seemed to be pointing in exactly the same direction (that’s a weird mixed metaphor), so it never felt (to me) like moving to a different viewpoint slowed the story. So there’s that.

    As for whether I found it most distinguished . . . I dunno. I also got very weary of the narrator – not just those one-note chapter endings, but the strange locutions brought in from all walks of life (“brothers and sister”, baseball talk, westerns, pop culture references, “fire [should read “damn”] the torpedoes, full speed ahead”, etc. etc.). Many of those felt like references that would go way over the head of the intended reader too.

    All that said, I don’t deny that the book had a lot of force, and I’m more that happy to admit that I was the wrong reader for the book. I could probably be convinced to support this one.

  12. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    Not that the committee ever thinks in these kinds of terms, but I think this could be a compromise title for the right committee, meaning that it’s a strong book with many fans, and if nobody thinks it’s the strongest book of the year, necessarily, neither does anyone have overly strong objections to it. At least, I haven’t heard any . . . Anyone have strong objections to this one?

  13. Martha Meyer says:

    I think the theme in The True Blue Scounts of Sugar Man Swamps is very strong — it urges kids and all of us to be stubbornly and ingeniously supportive of the natural world with the added caveat of fighting invasive species. It has a theme similar to Journey to the River Sea and Island of the Aunts by Ibbotson and a number of Carl Hiaasen books. Who knew that feral hogs were so much of a problem in Texas? Now I do!

    • Didn’t you ever read OLD YELLER? I just relistened to most of this and, Martha, you do have the theme. Love the invasive species.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      (Martha, do we *know* that feral hogs are a problem in Texas? Same as we know that fried sugar cane pies exist? I don’t think it changes the strength of the them if it’s not true….but just sayin’….)

  14. I also listened to the audiobook version of this, but in small commuter chunks. I would agree that a strength here is in the way the narration style reinforces the setting, but the pacing at the beginning was too slow for me. I’m planning on sitting down with the print version to see how that effects my impresssions, and to spend some more time with such fun characters, particularly the villianous hogs and alligator smooching Jaeger.

  15. This one felt too flawed to me to really hit the Newbery criteria. The narrator felt like the old Dukes of Hazzard guy to me, the insistent but meandering tone wore on me, and the slowness of the plot — made more noticeable by the very small chapters and constant intercutting — didn’t feel effective to me.

    The setting was wonderful, and I applaud that. It’s also possible that I’m simply as much the wrong reader for this as I can possibly be. However, the flaws in pacing, the forced charm of the tone, and the slowness of the plot all feel to me like actual problems, not (or at least, not just!) my own grouchiness.

    But Rachael is going to give this one a second look to see if I really am just the kind of guy who hates sunshine, puppies, and raccoons. 😉

  16. I don’t like animal stories. I don’t like intrusive narrators. (In fact the intrusive narrator is always a deal breaker for me-have your narrator talk to me at all and I’m out.) And yet, I enjoyed every minute I spent reading it (and I read it in one sitting). I did find the narration tiring after a while, but the fact that I didn’t want to put it aside despite that says a lot. I think this one is a strong contender in terms of setting and style.

    I am extremely jealous of all of you reading this aloud to students. I tried to get my daughter (age 9) to let me read it to her, but she read the first chapter herself and took it off to her room to finish. She was completely enchanted and didn’t want to wait around for the time it would take us to finish it together. Sigh.

  17. I don’t know how it would work for a independent reader, but as a read-aloud all those archaic expressions are working wonderfully well. Kids don’t need to even know what a torpedo is to enjoy the sound of the word. In fact, one more thing I like about this book is that Appelt uses a lot of really hard words — not just those old fashiony expressions, but all around high level vocabulary throughout. She doesn’t define the words and I don’t find I need to either. They just work.

    I always find reading aloud a title helps me to figure out if it works or not. This one nails it for me.

    • The use of these expressions reminded me a bit of the way Richard Peck drops cliches like they were being invented for the first time. They just fit so well.

  18. Appelt’s voice and setting creation is SO strong, it almost makes me want to overlook what I felt were the flaws in this book. While very few people can make a place feel like a character (and possibly BE a character if you envision the Sugar Man as embodying the swamp and and actual person) as Kathi Appelt does, I felt so turned off by the one-beat chapter endings (as Nina mentioned) that I felt like I could hardly engage with the plot. The cheesy cliches and references just totally disorganized my interpretation of the plot, and kept it from being Newbery quality for me.
    On a separate note, I loved the sub-theme of invasive species! I thought it was completely appropriate after the snake head craziness and now the wild hog drama down in the southern states (has anyone seen American Hoggers?!). Appelt’s inclusion of that theme, and the importance of ecological conservation resonated strongly with me, however, as I previously stated, it was just too overshadowed by the false-drama narration.

  19. I usually try to keep a good critical thinking-cap on while reading books for kids, but this one swept me along – pure delight – and I think that even if you read it (and don’t listen to the wonderful drawl of Lyle Lovett) it has an aural quality to the writing that you can “hear” as you read. Southern writing manages to do that so often. The print version is equal to the audiobook. This is flat-out great storytelling – I laughed aloud each time lightning struck the De Soto and the “Voice of Intelligence” echoed out into the swamp. Gravitas? Sure – certainly the environmental/conservationist message is there. But Appelt doesn’t feel the need to hit anyone over the head with it – it’s just part of the romp. I loved this book, and it’s got the kind of broad age-range quality that I look for in a book that’s going to last. Definitely Newbery quality.


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