Monday, December 23, 2013

Lord God (Bird)

I've largely taken this year off in the area of children's literature, but every once in awhile, something came along and said read me! In the case of Kathi Appelt's The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp, though, it was listen to me! Lyle Lovett ... no more need be said.

The True Blue Scouts are two newbys; raccoon brothers Bingo and J'miah are on their first mission keeping watch over the events in the Texas swamp occupied by the mysterious sleeping Sugar Man. They hang out in Information Headquarters, a rusted-out, abandoned 1949 DeSoto where every once in a while lightning causes the radio to blurt out a message from the Voice of Intelligence. If the Voice says something, the Scouts know they need to act on it.

Living next to the swamp, on the fragile Bayou Tourterelle, is 14-year-old Chap Brayburn who helps his mom eke out a small living making and serving sugar-cane pies. Chap's beloved grandfather, former owner of the abandoned DeSoto (he actually couldn't ever figure out where he left it after a serious rainstorm), has recently died and the boy is struggling with the loss. Paradise Pies is being threatened by a local good ol' boy, Sonny Boy Beaucoup, who wants to turn the swampland he owns into a theme park, headlined by alligator wrestler Jaeger Stitch. Sonny Boy's ancestor made a deal with the Sugar Man not to disturb the swamp, but Sonny Boy doesn't think this bargain is worth the blood that ancestor signed with

There's the Farrow Gang of rampaging feral hogs, led by Clydine, headed towards the Swamp and its delicious sugarcane. Also with a sweet tooth:  a bunch of nasty rattlesnakes -- including the Swamp Man's friend Gertrude. Bingo and J'miah need to foil the snakes, find the Sugar Man and figure out a way to wake him up if they're going to save the swamp.

And don't forget about the possibly-not-extinct ivory-billed woodpecker, last seen (and photographed) by Chap's grandpa ... but alas, the Polaroid is with the car.

The threads of this delightful story are woven together by an omniscient, folksy narrator who sprinkles the story with humorous asides, country wisdom, a whole bunch of onomatopoeia, some fairly complex language, and a conservationist's message. It's just funny enough for adults while it stays right in the wheelhouse of upper-elementary-school-age kids who enjoy adventure and might learn a grown-up word or two.

But really, ya gotta listen to it. Its narrator is setting up a deliciously convoluted story with many diversions and is using some wonderful language -- both dictionary-worthy and just plain speech -- to have us hunker around the campfire, or curl up on the sofa to hear it. Print, schmint ... this book is meant to be read aloud.

And to have that reader have the Texas twang and easygoing delivery of country singer Lyle Lovett ... well, it's pretty heavenly. It shouldn't be, actually. Lovett reads in a fairly unexpressive way, pretty much every word is equally emphasized and each sentence has the same pace. But, that twang goes a long way. It's hard to describe, but the laconic delivery works. Oddly, it really works with all the onomatopoeia: It's nothing fancy (no vocal effects, he's just reading the words), yet Lovett reads it with a seriousness that makes it funny. And then there's his pronunciation of bayou: He goes with BI-oh. Well, it sounds authentic to me.

Sadly, Lovett chooses not to sing in a couple of places where a song is included in the text. But I guess you can't have everything. There is a little bit of twangy violin and accordion (?) music that opens and closes the audiobook in an effective way, but I don't know if it's from Lyle (he's not credited).

After reading Phillip Hoose's The Race to Save the Lord God Bird, I've become a bit of a fan, excited as anyone about the possible renaissance of the ivory-billed. That "sighting" of a few years ago was a thrill ... except, really, can it be hiding from us that successfully? Perhaps only with the intervention of the Sugar Man. And, goodness knows, I believe in the Sugar Man.

[The photograph of a 1948 DeSoto (in much better shape than Grandpa's 1949 car) was taken by dave_7 and retrieved from Wikimedia Commons. Plate 66 from John James Audubon's Birds of America was posted on Wikimedia Commons by the University of Pittsburgh. We've actually got a complete folio at my library, but I'm not supposed to talk about it!]

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp by Kathi Appelt
Narrated by Lyle Lovett
Simon & Schuster Audio, 2013. 5:47

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