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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

True Blue Scouts

Earlier, Nina described this book as peacocky, and I think that’s an apt description.  No other novel on our shortlist, save FAR FAR AWAY, has such a striking, distinctive narrative voice.

appelt1 198x300 True Blue Scouts

OFFICIAL SUGAR MAN SWAMP SCOUT ORDERS

  • keep your eyes open
  • keep your ears to the ground
  • keep your nose in the air
  • be true and faithful to each other
  • in short, be good

These orders were practical, and the raccoon brothers had no problem following them.  Besides Bingo and J’miah weren’t ordinary Swamp Scouts.  They were, in fact, Information Officers, a highly specialized branch of the Scout system.  And because of this were two additional orders:

  • always heed the Voice of Intelligence, and
  • in the event of an emergency, wake up the Sugar Man
The first additional order was easy enough, as we shall soon see, but the second was a different matter.  The problem?  Nobody really knew exactly where the Sugar Man slept, only that it was somewhere in the deepest, darkest part of the swamp.  He hadn’t been seen in many years.  

Once again, Appelt writes in a cozy Southern voice, and that means the storytelling is going to be both colorful and leisurely, but the deft juggling of multiple plot strands over 104 short chapters propels the reader through the story.  Everything about this story works for me, from the language to the plot to the characters to the setting–I find it all distinguished, possibly most distinguished.  I had worried earlier in the season that this was lighter fare than THE UNDERNEATH or KEEPER, but I’m pleased with the critical and popular acclaim that this one is getting.  I currently have this rated as the number two middle grade novel just barely behind THE THING ABOUT LUCK.  I think TRUE BLUE SCOUTS is not only the more peacocky of the two, and the more well-rounded, but it’s also my kind of book.  THE THING ABOUT LUCK, on the other hand, gets a lot of mileage out of the surprise factor (Oh, wow!  Hey, I liked a book about harvesting wheat!), and the characters and humor of the book trump a very low-key plot (at least for me).  TRUE BLUE SCOUTS is probably more consensus-friendly, generally speaking, but that’s a variable that depends on the fifteen specific individuals on the committee.

 

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Jonathan Hunt About Jonathan Hunt

Jonathan Hunt is the County Schools Librarian at the San Diego County Office of Education. He served on the 2006 Newbery committee, and has also judged the Printz Award, the Boston Globe-Horn Book Awards, and the Los Angeles Times Book Prize. You can reach him at hunt_yellow@yahoo.com

Comments

  1. I’m with you on this one. Would love to see it recognized. Did I post a link to the mural some of my students did of it? (http://blogs.dalton.org/grade4projects/2013/12/20/edinger-houses-true-blue-scouts-of-sugar-man-swamp-mural/) It was a bit of a mess as they worked in the hall on it while I was in the classroom helping other kids finishing up a big project, but they are very proud of it. You can’t really see it in the photo, but they’ve got Blinkle way up on the rather massive radio tower on the left (I decided not to make any suggestions to them such as making Blinkle a little more visible:), a couple of alligators, and some flying hogs (though not quite the full Farrow gang) way over on the right. Gretrude actually is slithering behind it all, but her head and tail are outside the photo.

    I’m interested in what it is about the venacular voice in this book that is so attractive to me (and others) when I often can’t stand it in other kinds of books. I think perhaps I like it when it is being used in a strong brisk storytelling style, but not when it is used in a book that has what feels to me to be a more sentimental tone to it (I call it the Fried Green Tomatoes effect). But I know others found the voice in this one gratingly hard to get past and I wonder was it the southern style, the longwindness, or something else?

  2. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    1. I haven’t seen people complain about the voice as much as the pacing, and I’m thinking specifically of the discussion on For Those About to Mock. If each individual strand were parsed out and told as an individual story then I would probably be frustrated by the forward motion of the plot, too, but since there is constant segue between these little bite-sized chunks of text . . . it maintains that leisurely feeling of pace, while keeping the reader engaged. It’s just perfect for me, but admittedly I’m something of an ADHD reader.

    2. I think having it told in third person rather than first person really helps. Yes, the telling is leisurely, but I find that everything is relevant. You don’t find yourself reading a scene about the main character picking his nose, wondering how it advances the plot, like you do in so many other first person narratives that employ that Southern voice. Moreover, there aren’t long descriptive sentences and paragraphs. Everything’s fairly short, which subtly helps the pacing.

  3. Of course–3rd person makes a huge difference. I think many of the ones I didn’t enjoy were indeed in 1st person.

  4. Mary Kraus says:

    Hi Jonathan and Monica,
    I’m about 1/2 way through this book and am really enjoying it! I like it better than “Luck” so far. I am wondering what age group you all think this will engage? There is so much vocabulary from ‘my era’ that I am certain young readers will not “get” that I think makes this book so engaging. Or am I wrong…? I’ll follow up tomorrow when I’ve finished the book… can’t wait to finish!
    Mary

  5. Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

    I’m with you too, though I’m going to start to nitpick a little, since that is what we are here for.

    I’m one of the ones who dithers about the voice. Back in my original post I mentioned tiring of the one-note one-liners at the end of every chapter. This quality of the voice *affects* the sense of pacing, so I think these are related.

    Here’s a comparison I can do now, as I try to situate my own feelings about the book, though I couldn’t bring this to the table. I recall having a similar reaction to the “Dear Reader” voice in THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, though I was ultimately convinced that it perfectly suited the entire narrative, and the reader. I’m pulling it out now to see if Appelt is doing something similar to DiCamilllo, or if these are really different effects.

    Appelt chapter ends:
    Chapter 1 p.5 “Brothers and sisters, the stakes were high.”
    Chapter 2 p. 7 “All in all, it’s not a good idea to stir up the wrath of the Sugar Man.”
    Chapter 3 p.9 “You heard me. The DeSoto.”
    Chapter 4 p.13 “The Voice has never lied. Not once.”
    (Chapter 5 is the first without such a “du-dum” at the end. Chapter 6 lacks too. )
    (Chapter 7 is a 7 line chapter, practically the whole thing is that effect, but I think it gets a pass)
    And after that we do continue to find the effect, but it’s more occasional, better woven in, and the chapters get longer….so the pacing finds its pace. It looks like it is really those first 13 pages, where the chapters are all short and all end on that note, that bug me. I think every time I heard the note again it tweaked that bug, maybe unfairly.

    DiCamillo chapter ends:
    Chapter 1, p.15 “But, reader, he did live. / This is his story.”
    Chapter 2, p.19, “But, reader, he was not smelling. / He was listening, with his big ears, to the sweet sound that no other mouse seemed to hear.”
    Chapter 3, p. 25 “Reader, you must know that an interesting fate (sometimes involving rats, sometimes not) awaits almost everyone, mouse or man, who does not conform.”
    Chapter 4, p. 29 “He crept closer and then closer still, until, reader, he was sitting right at the foot of the king.”
    Chapter 5 is the first without “reader” in the last sentence. Chapter 6 and 7 also lacks, though they all share the rhythm (which, honestly, is throughout the entire text).
    Chapter 8 it reappears, in a way that many critics latched on to, some to acclaim, some to complain: “Reader, do you know what ‘perfidy’ means? I have a feeling you do, based on the little scene that has just unfolded here. But you should look up the word in your dictionary, just in case.”
    There is a “,reader,” at the end of 9, 10, 11, 12, not 13….and I’ll stop there.

    Interesting for me to see that this end note is handled much in the same way as Appelt. Sets up a regularity, an expectancy, at the beginning, that it then can play with throughout. With DiCamillo, it is definitely about setting up a relationship between the reader and the narrator. It doesn’t strike a “du-dum” rhythm like Appelt’s, it feels to me more a part of the rhythm that has come before it. I think, ultimately, it works better for me than it does in Appelt also because DESPEREAUX is for a younger reader, and it seems to suit that reader better…

    So, how does this ultimately make me feel about Appelt, in relationship to our other eligible books, because that’s all I CAN bring to the argument. Looking at this effect across the text, I’m willing to chalk it up to “not too important in the scheme of things,” though I think this effect, in combination with the extremely short chapters up front and the somewhat awkward shift in pacing after that, show a bit of a heavy hand, and one that was not really necessary to engage the intended audience. I think that every single one of our other fiction contenders handles the pacing/voice combo more expertly, and that CLEMENTINE might be one to hold up to SCOUTS for a comparison of strong voice. I’m lacking my copy of CLEMENTINE right now though, so can’t do a line by line comparison until later.

  6. Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

    While I see what you are pointing out, Nina–and I’ve seen people call other books out for this, too–I’m just not sure what makes this anything more than a stylistic quirk.

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      The issue–while minor–is whether this “stylistic quirk” disengages the intended audience, and whether it is distinguished. It’s an appropriateness of style question… Not enough to knock it out of contention in my book, but surely to be compared with other top-level contenders.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        No, I hear where you are coming from. I just . . . well, here’s my pet peeve: first person present tense narration. I know with every fiber of my being that first person present tense narration is inherently inferior to first person past tense which in turn is inferior to third person narration. It’s so easy to pick apart first person; it always requires a willing suspension of disbelief. So it’s not that I don’t think you have a point, it’s just that I have to take it with a grain of salt, just as you would for my hang-up. Am I making sense?

    • Nina Lindsay Nina Lindsay says:

      Yes….making sense. Thanks. I’m not sure my own peeve has to do fully with the first person aspect of it, although it certainly contributes. It’s more that voice plus the choppiness of the pacing at the beginning. I feel like the story starts itself over and over, and it was hard (and remains hard for me on re-reading) to get into it. Of course, we’ve seen other “slow starting” Newbery winners, and I believe firmly in the adage “no Newbery winner is flawless.” It’s just a matter of finding the balance of flaws and strengths, and comparing them to each other, that is so hard to do.

      • Sarah says:

        If you’ll forgive me for jumping in (especially as someone who generally just observes here) I think there’s perhaps a bit of a distinction to be made. While most would agree that the use of first-person narration does not render To Kill a Mockingbird, Moby Dick, or Jane Eyre inferior texts– making such a general judgment a matter of personal taste– I think Nina is examining concrete examples where the uses of a particular literary device are less than effective, Perhaps the similarity is that first-person (or, by extension, first-person present) can often be an indication of a certain type of book, with other shared stylistic or narrative elements– and this can be true of the direct reader address as well. And those books are often annoying. But this is maybe more because such narrative or technical devices are being used poorly, in concert with other flaws, than because there is a fault with the conventions themselves? I think Nina does a fine job here of delineating how, exactly, this use of a direct address at the end of each chapter might be seen as somewhat sloppy writing, and perhaps too, how this stylistic element ties in with a broader sense of self-consciousness and overwriting in this particular book. Or maybe I am just revealing my own prejudices!

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        Several things . . .

        1. I use my own first person pet peeve, not to argue the narrative choices work or do not work for TRUE BLUE SCOUTS, but rather to harken back to Vicky Smith’s guest post from earlier in the season. We often think of ourselves as perfect readers and the books as flawed, but what if it’s the other way around? The books are perfect and we are flawed. Nina has written very specifically about what bothers her–enough for me to understand where she’s coming from. At the end of the day, however, the short, single-sentence chapter endings are neither inherently good for me, or bad for me–they just are.

        2. I can find problems with the use of first person in about half the books written with it. For example, I just read a historical fiction by one of the finest practitioners of the genre, and read a paragraph describing something to me that he would take for granted. The same way that if I was writing a narrative addressed to somebody one hundred years from now, I wouldn’t need to stop the narrative and explain what a typewriter is. And don’t even get me started on YA fiction. It’ll just turn ugly.

        3. You know, we found that KEEPER had a slow beginning, both here on the blog and face-to-face. Perhaps THE UNDERNEATH, too? On the other hand, SPLENDORS AND GLOOMS had not one, not two, but three different beginnings, and we found that one distinguished, so I’m not sure I can hold a slow beginning against it (and I’m not conceding that it is slow).

  7. Erica says:

    In my opinion, the author went too far when she commented on the how much she liked her own word choices – it’s not as if she said that a character in the story enjoys words or phrases and likes to play with them, it was the anonymous narrator (not differentiated from the author) describing something and then congratulating herself on her fine word choice. This happened only two or three times in the text (sorry, I can’t seem to find them just now…), but it was so jarring that it made *all* the trite turns-of-phrases, metaphors, and repetition for emphasis stand out more noticeably as writing effects rather than blending seamlessly into the tone-of-voice and atmosphere.

    The odd conversation that occasionally happened around Bingo’s name was also disorienting. A few times, Appelt wrote “we” as the narrator, (for example, pg 134 in the ARC, “”Bingo!” said J’miah. (Bingo hated it when J’miah did that, but we think it’s kind of funny.)” Who is “we”? Who is the narrator talking to? Reading this, I actually looked over my shoulder involuntarily!

    Someone else mentioned the sad fizzling of the ivory-billed woodpecker story thread – this also bothered me. Why did the author talk about it so much if in the end it went nowhere? She was consciously directing our attention at it, as she was consciously choosing each acronym, Southern simile, and repeated phrasing that Nina mentions – to what purpose? I couldn’t find one.

    • Erica says:

      i found one example of the author commenting on her own word choice: page 132 in the ARC, “They usually travel in family groups called sounders. Isn’t that a great word? “Sounders”? We just love that. But do we love Buzzie and Clydine and the Farrow Gang? Friends, ther eis nothing to love there. Nothing.”

      I can see how a skillful teacher reading this to a class could make sense of this voice. But for most individual readers, we need more back-story to be able to effectively act out the speaking roles: The author’s narrator is a character in this story who is unnamed, undescribed, and unknown, even at the end of 371 pages. I’m clueless about who he or she is; clearly very much a part of the community of the characters, and yet, holding her/himself apart enough to comment on the quaint language? I don’t get it.

      • Jonathan Hunt Jonathan Hunt says:

        As Monica says below, Pullman has thought, spoken, and written about narratology. He says that the narrator and the author are not the same person, and that the narrator is indeed a character in their own right. The use of direct address (“dear reader”) and royal we harken back to an older tradition of narration which, while we see less often nowadays, is very much acceptable.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      As someone who closely followed the story of the supposed rediscovery of the ivory-billed woodpecker in 2005, I thought Appelt’s handling of it was appropriate and emotionally and thematically resonant: there is a photograph, it is an old one (i.e., no one sees the bird in the book’s present), Chap finds it and leaves it for the Scouts. All of this worked for me. If the Sugar Man were the only cryptozoological element in the book, then the book loses some poignancy, because the Sugar Man isn’t “real” the way the woodpecker is/was. Whether for a reader without independent knowledge of the ivory-billed woodpecker backstory, enough was included to make it work, I don’t know. Based on some of the reaction, perhaps not.

      • Sam Bloom says:

        That storyline DOES get resolved; the swamp is saved, and there’s a hopeful moment in the last few chapters where someone (probably Chap, perhaps when it is revealed that he didn’t take ANY of the photos) thinks to himself maybe he’ll one day see the ivory bill.

  8. Appelt is using a third person omniscient narrator who does stay behind the scenes, mostly. DiCamilo used it in The Tale of Despereaux, Dickens is a great user of it, and so is Philip Pullman. One of my favorite bits in The Golden Compass is a teeny expression of exasperation on the part of the unknown narrator when Lyra goes on too long with one of her stories. I’ve written about this quite a bit on my blog. One older post (where I go more into Pullman’s ideas about this) is here: http://medinger.wordpress.com/2010/08/06/whatchamacallit-narrators/

  9. Mary Kraus says:

    Well, I just finished the book last evening and tried to read with my ’5th grade’ brain in gear. Appelt has much the same humor that I use (puns, word-play, etc.) so I really enjoyed her light-hearted syle. Here are some lines that made me giggle: “pie coma aroma,” “all seventeen of our grouchy grunters,” “The hogs noshed until the hogs came home. (Sorry couldn’t resist.) They tore through that cane, ripping it out of the ground and tramping it and stamping it and mostly, hogging it.” “Hummers were originally built for warfare. That was their design, their calling. But this one had been all glammed up. And I’ll tell you, it seemed like its sense of purpose was lost in the glamming.” And just some plain,great similie action: ” He crouched down as low as he could, making himself as thin as a shadow.” And text that made me feel deeply: “Chap felt more alone than ever. The cloud of lonesome that his grandpa had left behind sat right between his shoulder blades.”

    My 4th grade neighbor can’t wait to read this book… I’m going to love discussing it with him once he’s done.
    Mary

  10. Elissa G says:

    This book worked for me in the audio version in ways that it did not on the page. I was in 100% agreement with Nina and Erica about that one-liner-y, frequently-adult-aimed, bordering-on-self-congratulatory narrative tone while reading. However: hearing Lyle Lovett tell me that story, in his perfectly understated drawl with spot-on sound effects, heightened the tall-tale elements and brought out the tongue-in-cheek-iness of Appelt’s style. The pacing, as a read-aloud, worked flawlessly for me — a testament to the audiobook narrator, but also to Appelt’s great skill as a yarn-spinner.

    • Mary Kraus says:

      I have the audiobook on order from the library and should get it by tomorrow or the next day… I can’t wait! I am an audiobook-commuter and my intuition told me Lyle Lovett would bring this book alive just like Diana Steele, Nick Podeho and Kate Rudd did for Wonder!
      Mary

  11. Emily says:

    I’m having a tough time identifying this book’s intended audience and that, for me, is its greatest weakness. Booklist recommends it for grades 5-8, but I suspect that recommendation is the result of the its high Lexile Measure. It’s the sort of story a teacher might read aloud to a class of 2nd graders, what with its “snip snap zip zaps” and its “rumble rumble rumble rumbles,” but it’s not the sort of book a 7 year old (unless he or she happens to be a truly exceptionally reader) could pick up and read on his or her own. The crux of the problem seems to be that the older children who could read it on their own won’t, and the younger children who might want to read it on their own can’t.

    • Emily says:

      Of course my first ever comment on this site would have a typo. My second sentence should read – “Booklist recommends it for grades 5-8, but I suspect that recommendation is the result of its high Lexile Measure.”

  12. Sam Bloom says:

    As much as I love this one, it pretty much got slammed yesterday at our Mock Newbery… lots of folks had problems with the narrator, the pacing, whether it was appropriate for the intended audience (many of the same issues mentioned here in the comments). So I hope the real committee can somehow reach a consensus on this one – I’d definitely give it one of my 7 nominations.

  13. Leonard Kim says:

    I enjoyed this book even more on re-read. I would submit that one’s personal reading style will play a large role in one’s reception of this book. I’m very much an auditory reader — I confess to mouthing words as I read and always hear them in my head as if from a storyteller. For someone like me, the book works brilliantly, and I think the testimony of the many people who have said that the audiobook is what sold them or that this book worked great as a read-aloud supports this. Of course, a lot of “Southern” writing works like this — earlier this year I read Julius Lester’s version of THE TALES OF UNCLE REMUS, for example, and it’s clearly the same sort of thing. I hope it’s understandable that I had no problems whatsoever with voice or pacing as Appelt’s writing allowed me to invent a “voice” in my head that, 99% of the time, was able to pull off the the various quirks and effects in an entertaining and compelling way.

    Now I know there are readers who don’t read like this. For example, “visual” readers who rely on words and figurative language to let them build a picture in their heads. I myself have little patience for detailed description-heavy books, but there you have it.

  14. Mary Kraus says:

    From a kid’s point of view:
    My 4th grade neighbor completed this book in 2 days (school days at that!) and LOVED the book. However, when we sat down and chatted about the book I don’t know why I was surprised when he accepted the literal context of: boat load of cash, when pigs fly and others. He had know idea what I was talking about when I asked him if he thought he would have left behind all 3 of the pictures in the car. This spurred further conversation about what a Polaroid was… which he didn’t know… thus, not knowing that the ‘art” in the car were pictures. This just supports the conversation we had about True Blue being a nice book for a read along with a teacher who can pull out and teach the figurative language connections. All that aside… he loved and laughed through the book which is what reading is all about… no?

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