The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp (J)

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp

Kathi Appelt (Juvenile Fiction)

Raccoons have been the official scouts of Sugar Man Swamp for eons (and that’s a really long time). Brothers Bingo and J’miah aren’t just ordinary swamp scouts. No, no, no! They’re Information Officers, a highly specialized branch of the Scout system. On the rooftop of Information Headquarters (which happens to look an awful lot like a 1949 DeSoto Sportsman) on the banks of the Bayou Tourterelle, our brave scouts keep vigil over their beloved swamp and try their very best to make their parents proud and to respectfully serve the Sugar Man. Not far from Information Headquarters is twelve-year-old Chap Brayburn. Mourning the recent loss of his beloved grandfather, Chap is now the man of the house and uncomfortably in the crosshairs of one Sonny Boy Beaucoup, owner of Sugar Man Swamp. Sonny Boy wants to build a wresting arena and theme park right smack dab in the middle of the swamp! No, no, no! Before long, the scouts and Chap find themselves in a race against time to save the swamp and everything they hold dear.

I loved Kathi Appelt’s Newbery Honor book The Underneath and was delighted that this book had the same warmth, charm, and appeal. Packed with plenty of action and adventure, young readers will relish this story filled with pirates, feral hogs, a giant rattlesnake, and a hairy giant as tall as a tree with hands as wide as palmettos. The short chapters, numerous say-out-loud sounds (how fun is it to pretend to be a snake by mimicking its rattle with a “chichichichichi” or to sssssssspeak like a ssssssssnake), and humorous side comments make this a ready-made bedtime story. Readers will thrill in the antics of Bingo and J’miah while parents will appreciate the valuable moral lessons repeated throughout the book. Although there is a bit of thievery in our story, can you really blame two hungry scouts when such delicious sugar pies are involved? No, no, no!

The True Blue Scouts of Sugar Man Swamp is about family, loyalty, and bravery. But at its core, this book is a love letter to Mother Nature and reminds us that no matter how slimy, scary, slippery, scaly, scummy, or scratchy some creatures, objects, or places might be, they each play an invaluable role in an ecosystem that is extremely complex, amazingly fragile, and so very precious and irreplaceable. As Chap’s grandfather, Audie, always told him, “Nosotros somos paisanos. We are fellow countrymen. We come from the same soil.” We could all benefit by following the 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.

Rating: 4/5

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Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland by Dave Barry

Best State Ever

Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland

Dave Barry (Adult Non-Fiction)

Poor Florida.  A state that has become synonymous with all things weird, daft, looney, loco, nutty, and just plain one-beer-short-of-a-six-pack crazy.  Don’t believe me?  Just Google “Florida Man” along with your birth month and day and ten times out of ten (or REALLY close to it), a corresponding headline will pop up.  For example, on my birthday, this made the headlines: “Naked Florida man breaks into home, tries on woman’s clothes, police say”.  See?  Well let me tell you something.  Dave Barry is S-I-C-K of people wrongfully labeling his beloved state and he’s set out to defend the good name of his hometown by showing us the lighter and brighter (and not necessarily saner) side of “The Sunshine State”.  So, buckle up because you’re in for an interesting and unforgettable ride!

According to Cosmopolitan magazine, women are attracted to guys with a sense of humor.  If that’s the case, then Dave Barry is one of the sexiest men alive.  With Best. State. Ever. A Florida Man Defends His Homeland, Barry gives us Fodor’s on laughing gas.  His book contains countless (truly) laugh-out-loud moments that makes reading in public a somewhat perilous undertaking…unless you love awkward moments and getting suspicious side glances from complete strangers.  Barry lovingly introduces us to real-life, overlooked treasures and he does so with the warmth, adoration, and pride as a parent would present his first-born to the world.  Through wit and black and white photos, we meet Dave Shealy, operator of Skunk-Ape Research Headquarters in Ochopee; we delight in watching mermaids eat underwater (they get hungry, you know) and waving an American flag at Weeki Wachee Springs; and we get to know more than we ever thought imaginable at the Spongeorama in Tarpon Springs.  Using a Florida Tourist Attraction rating system of Out-of-Order Mold-A-Matics, Barry ranks these unsung heroes on a scale from one to five (five being the BEST…and he even rates one attraction a six, but you have to read the book to discover this hidden gem) and offers valuable insights that only a native can appreciate and share.

Read Best. State. Ever. and I promise (or at least hope) that you’ll laugh, you’ll cry (from laughing), and you’ll probably Google “Florida Man” and your birthday as soon as you finish reading this review.  But mostly, you’ll have fun gaining a whole new perspective and appreciation for a state that was not only known as the birthplace of the “hanging chad”, but is also chockful of anything and everything that is weird, daft, looney, loco, nutty, and just plain one-beer-short-of-a-six-pack crazy.

(Reviewer’s Note: If you love the gloriously quirky, kitschy, and sometimes tacky roadside attractions that are a part of our unique culture, then I highly recommend you continue your journey with Betsy Carter’s book entitled Swim to Me about the mermaids of Weeki Wachee.  I think Dave would approve.)

Rating: 5/5

*Book cover image attributed to

The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales by Jon Scieszka (J)

The Stinky Cheese Man

The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales

Jon Scieskza (Juvenile Fiction)

Meet Jack:  adventurer, trespasser, thief, giant agitator, and—for this particular occasion—narrator of our story.  But this isn’t just any story, but rather several stories.  Stories of a princess, a fibbing frog, a giant, a tortoise and a rather hairy hare, an athletic little girl, an obnoxious chicken, and yes, a stinky cheese man.  These stories will not only entertain, amuse, and delight, but they may—one day—just save your life!  Don’t believe me?  Just ask Jack.

The Stinky Cheese Man and other Fairly Stupid Tales is a wonderful read-out-loud book that will undoubtedly induce a few chuckles, giggles, guffaws and perhaps an eyeroll or two.  But make no mistake that the star of this book is not the stories, but rather the incredible, award-winning artwork of Lane Smith (who collaborated with Jon Scieszka again in creating The True Story of the Three Little Pigs!).  His over-the-top, dark, eclectic, multi-media illustrations earned Smith the 1993 Caldecott Medal Honor award and are the very vibrant and outlandish heart of this outrageously enchanting book.  Lacking any moral lessons whatsoever, unless you count “When in the presence of giants, it’s best to keep your mouth shut” or “Sometimes there is no happy ever after so get over it”, Scieszka encourages us to see the ridiculous side of life, to accept life for what it is, and to remind us that sometimes tales, even fairly stupid ones, can simply be enjoyed without having an ulterior motive.

Danish author Hans Christian Andersen, known for his own fairy tales, once said, “Life itself is the most wonderful fairy tale.”  Indeed, it is.  So, here’s to living life to its fullest, filling it with plenty of laughter and silliness, and creating your own happily ever after because if you don’t, you just might get eaten up by a giant.  The End.

Rating: 4/5

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The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness (Biography) by Joel ben Izzy

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness

The Beggar King and the Secret of Happiness  

Joel ben Izzy (Adult Biography)

“There are some stories that make you feel warm and good inside, leaving you with the sense that all is right with the world.  There are others that simply make you laugh.  And then there are those you just don’t know what to do with, the kind that pass through your psyche like a mouse moving through a snake.”  This is a story about a man who lost so much only to gain even more.

Joel ben Izzy is a storyteller and a very successful one at that.  He has traveled the world delighting audiences with his folktales and stories.  He has a wife, two beautiful children, and is happy…until a routine operation robs him of his voice.  Just when our storyteller believes he has lost everything, his old teacher resurfaces to remind him that what is really important isn’t lost, but has yet to be found.

Joel ben Izzy combines his remarkable journey with tales about a lost horse, a jumping cricket, a border guard, Silence, Truth, and Death.  Through witty, poignant, and heartbreakingly honest writing, ben Izzy demonstrates why he is so remarkable and successful at what he does.  Very seldom does a book leave me absolutely charmed, entranced, and hopelessly smitten.  Such was my gift from this truly skilled storyteller.

ben Izzy’s former teacher once told him that his story was in the hands of a masterful storyteller.  There are those of us who believe this about our own story—that it is already written and we are merely being guided, chapter by chapter, to our final page.  Throughout our life, we hope that this storyteller is kind, merciful, generous, has a sense of humor, and perhaps suffers from bouts of amnesia.  But through it all, we pray for the courage to keep turning the next page—ever anxious to discover what the storyteller has in store for us next.

Rating: 5/5

* Book cover image attributed to