This blog is a continuation of a class assignment for the TWU course 5603, Literature for Children and Young Adults. Subsequent entries are for TWU course 5653, Multicultural Literature for Children and Young Adults. The new entries are for TWU course 5663, Poetry for Children and Young Adults.

Thursday, June 23, 2011

Swamp Angel

By Anne Issacs
Illustrated by Paul Zelinsky

cover image retrieved from

Isaacs, Anne. 1995. SWAMP ANGEL. Dutton Children’s Books. New York. ISBN-13: 9780780799813

Plot Summary
“Little” Angelica Longrider was born on August 1, 1815, destined to become the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee. She spends her childhood building log cabins and saving the members of her community from disasters. When saving a wagon train from the muck and mire of a nearby swamp, she awed the rescued pioneers. They dubbed her an angel, thus earning her the moniker Swamp Angel. Angelica soon faces her toughest opponent, a menacing bear named Thundering Tarnation. In an attempt to earn the title “Champion Wildcat,” the Swamp Angel sets out to vanquish the rogue bear. After the failed efforts of several men, she finally meets up with her nemesis. The size one another up and then have at it. Their tussling stirred up so much dirt, the Great Smoky Mountains were so christened from the dust storm they created. After an epic five-day battle, the bear and Angelica finally collapse in exhausted sleep. Their intense snoring lead to the felling of two enormous trees, which opportunely landed just next to and then on the giant bear. There he lay, dead as a doornail. Angel summed up their extraordinary battle by telling the dead bear, “Confound it, varmint, if you warn’t the most wondrous heap of trouble I ever come to grips with!” Thundering Tarnation provided a feast for the community that evening, and kept them well-fed for the winter. His hide accompanied her to Montana, where she laid it out in front of her cabin. It became the Shortgrass Prairie. 

Critical Analysis
Angelica Longrider is not your average girl. Born slightly bigger than her mother, she grows to tackle huge problems in her mountain valley community with compassion and ease. Anne Isaacs constructs a fanciful folktale in her first children’s book. Her main character embodies all the qualities expected of a folk legend: enormous size, kind heart, multiple talents, and adept problem solving. Pitting Swamp Angel against an equally imposing figure, Thundering Tarnation, is true to the folklore tradition of setting up the heroine/hero against a force representing insurmountable destruction or evil. Typical of the folktale genre, the overgrown heroine prevails in her campaign to rid the world of the dastardly beast. Folklore enthusiasts will not be disappointed in this modern rendering of an old narrative tradition.

Ms. Isaac’s comfortable sprinkling of hillbilly talk into the tale brings authenticity that would lead the reader to believe this tale had been around since the days of storytelling around the nightly campfire. Readers will feel a part of the setting as her mix of slang, idioms, similes, metaphors, and history draw one into this fanciful tale. Per folklore custom, authentic events and places are explained through the events of the account.

Paul Zelinsky’s illustrations bring Swamp Angel to life. To capture the rustic feel of the legend, Mr. Zelinsky crafted the artwork by painting in oils on cherry, maple, and birch veneers, according to information on the copyright page. Zelinsky is well-known as a Caldecott-winning illustrator of two children’s books, as well as the creator of artwork for twenty-one other children’s books. Zelinsky’s use of ovals to frame many of the pictures in Swamp Angel offers variety and a nostalgic feel, which are both perfect for a folk tale format. He utilizes primitive-style faces to further create the mood of a tale from days gone by being retold, rather than an original story created within the past two decades. Rich earthtones perfectly suit the outdoorsy setting and mood. Wood grain frames around each page complete the homespun, down-to-earth ambience of a folktale. Mr. Zelinsky knows his craft well, and has unmistakably identified and crafted the subtleties required to accomplish a current-day old-fashioned legend. 

Review Excerpts
“Move over, Paul Bunyan, you are about to meet Swamp Angel, an original creation in the tall-tale tradition whose exploits are guaranteed to amaze and amuse a wide swath of readers. . . Visually exciting, wonderful to read aloud, this is a picture book to remember.” 
                                             starred review, Horn Book
“It is impossible to convey the sheer pleasure, the exaggerated loopiness, of newcomer Isaacs’s wonderful story. Matching the superb text stride for stride are Zelinsky’s altered-state, American primitive paintings—gems that provide new pleasures, reading after reading.”
                                starred review, Kirkus

The pictures and words cavort across the page in perfect synchronization, revealing the heroine’s feisty solution. Buy for a great guffaw in small groups or one-on-one…. It’s an American classic in the making.
Wendy Lukehart, Dauphin County Library, Harrisburg, PA © Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc.

Zelinsky’s detailed oil paintings in folk-art style are exquisite, framed in cherry, maple, and birch wood grains. They are also hilarious, making brilliant use of perspective to extend the mischief and the droll understatement…. Pair this picture book with Lester and Pinkney’s John Henry [BKL Je 94] for a gigantic tall-tale celebration.
Hazel Rochman. From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association

Starred reviews: Horn Book, Booklist, Kirkus, Bulletin, Publisher’s Weekly, School Library Journal

Awards and Honors

1995 Caldecott Honor Book

1995 Boston Globe-Horn Book Honor Book
1994 ALA Notable Book
New York Public Library, 100 Books Every Child Should Read
New York Times Best Illustrated Books of 1994
School Library Journal Best Books of 1994
Booklist Children’s Editors Choices 1994
Publisher’s Weekly Best Books of 1994
Time Magazine’s 8 Best Children’s Books, 1994
Parenting Magazine Reading-Magic Award, 10 Best Books of 1994
1995 Notable Trade Book in Language Arts, National Council of Teachers of English
Book of the Month Club featured selection
Featured on Storytime, PBS

*     Social Studies: locate the places identified in the story on a map.
Tennessee, Great Smoky Mountains, Kentucky, Montana, Shortgrass Prairie
Star chart: Ursa Major (Great Bear) and Ursa Minor (Little Bear)
*     Science: research and describe the habitat of Tennessee, especially in the Great Smoky Mountains region.
*     Math: Use the idea of a folk tale to create story problems for classmates to solve.
Example:  Thundering Tarnation is stealing all of the settlers’ grub. If he steals eight pounds  of meat from twelve settlers, how many pounds of meat would he have to eat?
*     Language Arts: How would this story be different if it were set in the Desert Southwest? Create a folktale of your own by changing to a Desert Southwest setting.
*     Other books written by Anne Isaacs:
Treehouse Tales
Torn Thread
Cat Up a Tree
Pancakes for Supper
Dust Devil
*     Other books illustrated by Paul Zelinsky:
Emily Upham’s Revenge
How I Hunted the Little Fellows
The History of Helpless Harry
Three Romances
What Amanda Saw
The Maid and the Mouse and the Odd-Shaped House
Ralph S. Mouse
The Song in the Walnut Grove
The Sun’s Asleep Behind the Hill
Zoo Doings
Dear Mr. Henshaw
Hansel and Gretel (Caldecott Honor Book)
Rumpelstilstskin (Caldecott Honor Book)
The Random House Book of Humor for Children
The Wheels on the Bus
The Enchanted Castle
More Rootabagas
Rapunzel (Caldecott Medal winner)
Five Children and It
Awful Ogre’s Aqful Day
Knick-Knack Paddywack!
Doodler Doodling
The Story of Mrs. Lovewright and Purrless Her Cat
Toys Go Out
The Shivers in the Fridge
Toy Dance Party
Awful Ogre Running Wild
Dust Devil

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