Isaacs, Anne. 1994. Swamp Angel. Ill. Paul O. Zelinsky. New York: Penguin Books, Inc. ISBN 978-0-14-055908-8
From the very first page of the book, readers of Swamp Angel know they are in for a real tall-tale treat. There, readers are introduced to the unforgettable main character, Angelica Longrider, who is seen as an enormous baby in the arms of her startled parents. Although Isaacs states that “there was nothing about the baby to suggest that she would become the greatest woodswoman in Tennessee,” the irony of that statement is soon revealed. At the young age of twelve, Angelica is seen heroically saving many settlers from a flooding disaster by picking up wagons with ease and placing them on higher ground. From then on, everyone on the frontier refers to her as the Swamp Angel. Her most heroic feat comes when she saves her town from a menacing black bear named Thundering Tarnation, who has cleaned out nearly half the cellars in Tennessee. Often being compared to the female version of Paul Bunyan, Swamp Angel swings Thundering Tarnation around like a Tornado, wrestles him for three days straight, avoids drowning by drinking an entire lake, and eventually outsmarts the bear by snoring down a tree that falls directly on top of him. The tale ends with a huge celebration where the whole state of Tennessee enjoys “bear stakes, bear cakes, bear muffin, and bear stuffin’, bear roast and bear toast.” And of course, there are just enough bear goodies left over to fill all of the empty storehouses for the winter.
Whether in a small group, a classroom setting, or alone, children will be mesmerized by the humor, exaggeration, and picturesque language Anne Isaacs uses in the creation of the plot and characters in this book. As Booklist accurately states, “Isaacs tells her original story with the glorious exaggeration and uproarious farce of the traditional tall tale and with its typical laconic idiom–you just can’t help reading it aloud.” Although children won’t be wrestling a bear for three days anytime soon, they will hopefully leave with the message that with hard work and determinations, dreams do come true.
The amount of detail used in Zelinksy’s folk-art oil paintings is truly stunning. The illustrations, appearing in a rotation of ovals, semi-circles, and rectangles with cherry, maple, and birch wood backgrounds, give the paintings an antique picture frame look. This style seems to be a great match for the American frontier setting of the story. If children look closely, they’ll be able to discover tiny scenes taking place in the background of the main story plot scenes. Animals and characters the sizes of a thumbprint are seen with animated expressions on their faces, mirroring the mood created within the text.
Although Zelinksy’s oil paintings seem to steal the show, Isaacs’ descriptive text is certainly not forgettable. Children will be introduced to a host of similes that will kick their imaginations into overdrive. They will be imagining how Swamp Angel “lifted those wagons like they were twigs on a puddle” and how Thundering Tarnation “snored like a locomotive in a thunderstorm.” As both illustrations and text come together to form the perfect synchronization, School Library Journal had it right when they stated that “It’s an American classic in the making.”
Bringing a professional storyteller into the library to read Swamp Angel would be an excellent opportunity to pique children’s (and their family’s) interests. As Sylvia Vardell puts it, “There is nothing quite like hearing a story told by a professional storyteller (Varell 2008, 103). If the library budget is tight, introducing the audio book and handing out multiple copies of the book for children to follow along would be a great way to recreate the storytelling environment. Ideally, the narrator would have a great deal of enthusiasm while reading.
Swamp Angel was nominated for a Caldecott Award in 1995, a Show Me Readers Award in 1996, and a Boston Globe Hornbook Award in 1995.
Books in Print. Texas Woman’s University Library. Accessed September 21, 2013.
Vardell, Sylvia. Children’s Literature in Action: A Librarian’s Guide. Westport: Libraries Unlimited, 2008.