Audio Review: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt

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April 2, 2014 by Heidi

The True Blue ScoutsTitle: The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp [Goodreads]
Author: Kathi Appelt [Website|Twitter|Facebook]
Narrator: Lyle Lovett
Standing: Stand alone.
Genre: Middle Grade, Fantasy (Animal), Contemporary
Published: July 23rd, 2013 by Simon & Schuster Audio
Format: Audiobook; 5 hrs, 48 min.
Source: Borrowed from my local library.

Raccoon brothers Bingo and J’miah are the newest recruits of the Official Sugar Man Swamp Scouts. The opportunity to serve the Sugar Man the massive creature who delights in delicious sugar cane and magnanimously rules over the swamp is an honor, and also a big responsibility, since the rest of the swamp critters rely heavily on the intel of these hardworking Scouts.

Twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn is not a member of any such organization. But he loves the swamp something fierce, and he’ll do anything to help protect it.

And help is surely needed, because world-class alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch wants to turn Sugar Man swamp into an Alligator World Wrestling Arena and Theme Park, and the troubles don’t end there. There is also a gang of wild feral hogs on the march, headed straight toward them all.

The Scouts are ready. All they have to do is wake up the Sugar Man. Problem is, no one’s been able to wake that fellow up in a decade or four.

The adorable cover of Kathi Appelt’s The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp has been catching my eye for some time (I’m a sucker for good animal fantasy), though I’m not sure I ever would have actually picked it up were it not nominated as part of this year’s Audie Awards in the Children’s Ages 8-12 (aka Middle Grade) category.  The True Blue Scouts is one of those interesting conglomerations between animal and human fantasy, as we saw in The Cheshire Cheese Cat last year.  Both the humans and animals play integral roles in the varying plot threads, and yet, the two are unable to communicate with one another.

I wanted to be charmed by The True Blue Scouts, but alas, I found myself merely enjoying them, making this one of those difficult to review books that plants itself in the middle of the road and provides no strong feelings in either direction.  I loved that there were such twisting and turning threads of the plot, each dancing around each other and only coming together to assist one another when necessary–never truly intertwining.  The humans are concerned with saving the Sugar Man Swamp from development, while the animals are concerned with saving it from a frightening herd of rumble rumble rumbling wild boars.

I loved the painting of the Sugar Man himself as a relative of Big Foot and Yetis, a narcoleptic, sugar-loving, giant protector of the swamp and its inhabitants.  I greatly enjoyed the tales of Chap’s grandfather and the delicious wafting of fresh sugar pies, but I found points of the story troubling as well.  In particular, there was a repeated emphasis on Chap’s need to ‘be a man’ that I find disconcerting in any story.  It may be that I had just watched this video the same day as reading, but I can’t help but agree.  I understand that with the loss of his grandfather, Chap had been put into the position of sole ‘man’ of the family, but I was left searching for a counter-lesson of ‘sometimes it’s okay to be your age’ that never arose.

Primarily, as an Audie nomination, my focus while listening was on the narration, and I can’t help but feel that this is possibly the very thing that left The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp residing in my good but not great graces.  Lyle Lovett does have the ideal voice for a book set in rural Texas, and yet I found the narration halting and strangely emphasized.  The lazy southern lilt is perfectly fitting, but at the same time the laziness of it comes across almost as apathetic.  It is hard to feel overly concerned, invested, or excited when your narrator doesn’t seem to be.  On top of which, can I just point out that there is a repeated lullaby used on cane break rattlers throughout the book and that LYLE LOVETT THE SINGER-SONGWRITER DOESN’T SING IT.  What?!  Again, this just came off as lazy to me, and fairly disappointing.  There are a large number of sound effects required in this one (I feel as if these types of books are always favored for the Audies), but the execution was simply lackluster.  I grew used to the timber of his voice and eased into the story, but overall I’m afraid this won’t be in contention to receive my Armchair Audie vote.

There were, however, touches of childhood brilliance throughout that I just might have fallen for under altered circumstances.  Appelt repeatedly references situations as being “terrible horrible no good very bad”, alluding to a personal childhood favorite by Judith Viorst.  She also painted the swamp in a beautiful light, making it not only real to the reader, but a place where one might indeed like to live.  The villains are as entertaining (and strangely endearing) as our heroes, and the large cast keeps a reader on their toes.

Besides, any story in which pie plays a pivotal role has to be pretty good, right?

Likelihood that I’ll be back for more:  I won’t be seeking out more books narrated by Lyle Lovett, but I may just pick up The Underneath by Kathi Appelt at some point.  I don’t know though–dog books scare me.

Recommended for:  Young lovers of animal fantasy and those who enjoy some southern backwoods charm.

Get a second opinion:
Random Musings of a Bibliophile – “This is a fun tale and great to give to the young animal lovers in your life. (Or to read aloud to them, because really truly it will make a spectacular read aloud.)”
The Adventures of Cecelia Bedelia – “The True Blue Scouts is a funny, beautifully written and environmentally friendly tale of familial love and the ways in which a specific spot in nature can become ‘home’ to the heart.”

Armchair Audies
This review was written as part of the 2014 Armchair Audies.

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