Swamp Angel
written by Anne Isaacs
illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky

Anne Isaacs' Swamp Angel
Caldecott Honor illustrations by Paul O. Zelinsky

Children's book review by Steve Barancik

Ages 4-8

A Tall Tale for Girls

Paul Bunyan has a big sister, and her name is Swamp Angel.

Anne Isaacs' first book was borne of both a fascination with American history and idiom and her daughter's disgust with her school's implied message that quilting was women's primary responsibility in the days of the pioneers.

Meet our supersized heroine...

Angelica Longrider was taller than her mother at birth and building log cabins singlehandedly by age two. As tall as the sky, when she knits she uses tree limbs for knitting needles while mountain lions play with her balls of yarn.

baby building a log cabin

(Credit painter Paul O. Zelinsky with some of this inventiveness; his illustrations on wood veneer earned him a Caldecott Honor for the book.)

Angelica makes her name when she enters the contest to kill Thundering Tarnation, a giant black bear terrorizing the settlers in the hills here. She endures taunts - "Shouldn't you be home, mending a quilt?" - but is confident she'll be the one to slay Thundering Tarnation, a creature she matches up well with for size.

The epic Woman vs. Bear battle takes place only after the male hunters have been suitably humiliated by the big, black-pelted bully. The fight takes no less than four days and - Bunyan-like - features

  • whole lakes being drunk
  • tornadoes being used as lassoes
  • huge creatures hurled skyward and bouncing off the stars
  • a rest period featuring oversized snoring that actually fells forests

Naturally, Angelica - Swamp Angel - emerges triumphant in the end.

(And if you're expecting Thundering Tarnation to become her lifelong partner in giganticism, a la Babe the Blue Ox, expect to be disappointed. T.T. becomes a bear rug. This isn't PETA's Paulette Bunyan!)

Fresh-baked mythology

The book is executed to perfection. Zelinsky delights in depicting Swamp Angel in proper prospective, which means there's much fun to be had in perusing the pictures to see what all the normal-sized creatures are up to around her feet.

Boys should enjoy the sheer scale of the story, but girls will get even more than that out of the book.

Even today, girls can be left short of children's book role models that don't conform to certain stereotypes. If you'd prefer not to let the culture define for your daughter what it is to be female, then Swamp Angel is a great book to treat her to.

Here's a girl who's

  • bigger than all the boys
  • isn't afraid to get dirty or scraped up
  • can whip a bear and still be feminine enough to mourn him...

Confound it, varmint, if you warn't the most wondrous heap of trouble I ever come to grips with!"

Maybe she and Mr. Bunyan will get together in the sequel!

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