Swamp Angel is Heavenly
Swamp Angel by Anne Isaacs
Who says we can't create new folk heroes of the American frontier? Why should or forbears have all the fun of telling tall tales of American heroes?
Anne Isaacs gives us a new heroine from frontier days in Swamp Angel, a fun, original folk tale that introduces us to Angelica Longrider. Isaacs right away sets the tone, giving us a date out of history and beginning the exaggerations:
.there was nothing about the baby to suggest she would become the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee. The newborn was scarcely taller than her mother and couldn't climb a tree without help.
And so the story begins in the tall-tale tradition. So true to form does the book stay that it had me convinced that Swamp Angel was pulled from traditional folklore, not made up out of whole cloth. There is an authenticity to it even while it broadcasts that not a word of it is true.
While Isaacs gives us Swamp Angel's origins, she focuses the story on Angelica's encounter with Thunderin' Tarnation, a fearsome bear that is eating all the Tennessee settlers out of their homes, leaving nothing in their winter stores. The settlers create a reward and competition to kill the bear. The person who gets its pelt would earn the title, "Champion Wildcat."
Now it's well known, and a fact, too, that Tennessee daredevils are as plentiful as dewdrops on corn.
Now the men hoot and taunt Swamp Angel when she shows up for the competition, but she handles them with ease, grace, and humor. And they get much gentler treatment at her hands than they do from Thunderin' Tarnation.
This children's picture book is filled with wild, improbably events and actions ranging from wielding tornadoes like lassoes to drinking a lake dry to snoring down a forest. It's a fun romp, one that appeals equally to both children and adults.
Author Anne Isaacs was born in New York and attended school at the University of Michigan. She said she was a constant reader, her life changing forever in the fourth grade when she first read Coleridge and Shakespeare. At her Web site, she said she has done literature backward, reading adult literature as a child and discovering children's literature as an adult while reading to her children.
Complementing the conversational, lyrical tale, are beautiful pictures by artist Paul O. Zelinsky. The pictures are filled with wit and whimsy and shows us additional heroic deeds credited to Swamp Angel that the text doesn't have time to expand on. The pictures are done in an American primitive style with oils. Each one has a frame or matting of cherry, maple, and birch veneers. The stylized backgrounds bring us even closer to this Tennessee woodswoman. So successful are the paintings that they won Zelinsky a Caldecott Honor in 1995.
In addition to the Caldecott award, Swamp Angel has won Boston Globe-Horn Honor Book, ALA Notable Book, New York Times Best Illustrated Books of 1994, and Time Magazine's 8 Best Children's Books. It was also featured on Storytime, PBS.
Officially, the book is targeted at ages 4 to 8. As an adult who loves picture books, I always resist such strict age guidelines. Certainly my son, who is smack in the middle of that age range, fell in love with the book, demanding that I read it over and over again. Eventually, he was even able to read much of it himself-though he needed explanations on what "tarnation" and "root cellar" was, among other terms. He adored the exaggerations, though during the first reading he kept raising his eyebrows and asking, "Mom, do two-year-olds really build long cabins?"
While we read the book as a library book that now must trek back to the shelves, I'm fairly certain that a new copy of this book will soon be making a permanent appearance on my son's bookshelf. It's much too fun to pass up.