The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt; Atheneum Books for Young Readers, 325 pages ($16.99) Ages 8 to 12.
This marvelous novel from National Book Award finalist Appelt has the feel of a tall tale, the resonance of legend and a richness of humor, character (both animal and human and in-between) and setting that should make it a shoe-in for this year’s Newbery Medal. The true blue scouts are raccoon brothers Bingo and J’Miah living in a rusted-out 1949 DeSoto hidden by overgrown pricker vines in the Texas Sugar Man Swamp, who receive messages from The Voice (the car radio activated by lightning storms). In a tiny restaurant on stilts on the swamp’s edge, 12-year-old Chap Brayburn and his mother eke out a living selling fried sugar pies made from the juice of the wild muscovado sugar cane. Chap is mourning the death of his grandfather Audie, owner of the DeSoto and legendary friend of the swamp’s creatures, having seen – and possibly photographed – both the Sugar Man and the Lord God Bird, (Ivory Billed Woodpecker) in his lifetime. When the swamp is threatened, by the Farrow Gang of feral hogs and the unholy development team of Sonny Beaucoup and lady alligator wrestler Jaeger Itch, Bingo and J’Miah must get word to the Sugar Man (whose bodyguard is a huge rattlesnake named Gertrude). The nonstop action is relayed by a narrator with a folksy humor and wisdom that would make this a wonderful read-aloud. Appelt’s “The Underneath” was a National Book Award finalist and Newbery Honor book and winner of the PEN USA Literary Award.
– Jean Westmoore
Fin & Lady by Cathleen Schine; Sarah Crichton, 273 pages ($26)
Cathleen Schine’s enchanting new novel is about an orphaned brother and sister who form a small but sturdy family together. But the real star of “Fin & Lady” is that romantic time and place, Greenwich Village in the 1960s, where the Chicken Kiev at the Russian Tea Room melts in your mouth, the sounds of Pete Seeger and Woody Guthrie waft from the windows, and - if you’re lucky enough to be a kid - you can study Bob Dylan liner notes for language arts class, diagrammed sentences be damned. You can even go to school barefoot, if you’re lucky.
Fin is nobody’s definition of lucky; his “funeral suit was a year old, worn three times, already too small.” By age 11, Fin has lost his parents and his grandparents and must leave the family farm to live in wild, unpredictable New York City with Lady, his wild, unpredictable older half-sister.
Lady does not seem capable of taking care of herself, much less a sad little brother (an apparently hefty inheritance leaves them without financial worries, a neat trick that puts the story in an almost-but-not-quite fairy tale realm, as so many stories about orphans are). Up until now, Lady’s presence in Fin’s life has been minimal; he met her for the first time when he was 5. One mysteriously incomplete wedding and a journey across the sea later, she remains something of a mystery, although she confides to Fin that she plans to marry in a year, and would he help pick out the best suitor? She’s got three lined up but seems partial to none. One of them tells Fin bitterly: “You’re the kid she never has to have.”
Author of “The Three Weissmans of Westport,” which transplanted Jane Austen’s “Sense & Sensibility” to modern-day Connecticut, Schine is a wonderful storyteller with a sensational ability to marry the comic with the bittersweet, and she is adept at re-creating tricky family dynamics spoken and unspoken.
Her 1960s Village is funky, soulful and in a way magical. Even when terrible historic events occur, they seem to be happening far away from this hallowed ground.
Reality, though, eventually finds a way to intrude, as the Vietnam War spreads, protests mount and Fin enters adolescence. “Robert Kennedy was dead. The world was coming apart,” he thinks. Then his world really does come apart. But Fin turns out to be lucky. Lucky enough, at least, to pass on what Schine’s smart, entertaining novels illustrate so well: the power of a good story.
– Connie Ogle, Miami Herald