Review of "Swamp Angel"

Swamp Angel Review by Catherine Baty

“Swamp Angel [EVideo].” Performance by Allison Moorer, Weston Woods, 2001.

Isaacs, Anne, and Paul O. Zelinsky. Swamp Angel. New York, N.Y: Puffin Books, 2000.

When Angelica Longrider was born, she was barely bigger than her mother. As she grew older she helped people easily, putting out fires with rain clouds, and picking up covered wagons stuck in a swamp to move them to higher ground. After that, she earned the name Swamp Angel. A giant bear, Thunderin’ Tarnation, terrorized local settlers stealing all of their food they had stored up for winter. The settlers made a contest of killing the bear. Many men set out to kill the bear, but all fail. It was down to Swamp Angel. When she came across him, she threw him in the air so high that she had to use a wandering tornado for a lasso to get him back down. Swamp Angel fought Tarnation for many days. They even wrestled in their sleep! Their snoring is so loud it causes trees to fall. The biggest tree in Tennessee fell and with it a giant bee hive. After so many days without food, Tarnation couldn’t help it and ate up some of the honey while he was sleeping. While he was eating another tree fell on him, killing him right there. The meat from Tarnation filled the winter stores of the settlers and fed all of Tennessee! Swamp Angel took his hide and laid it down in Montana where it became the Short Grass Prairie. Not only that, when Tarnation had sailed into the sky, he crashed into a bunch of stars and people can still see his impression today.

Swamp Angel is a tall tale. Swamp Angel is both hero and maiden. She is kindly and sets out to help others as she can. Her maidenhood is even set out in how the men in line to kill Tarnation talk to her, not as if she is a miles tall woman, but as if she is any woman. I see Swamp Angel as being representative of how young women can see themselves, if they are inclined. She shows that no one has to conform to the standard set before us and the femininity does not mean lack of strength. The plot hopped along at a quick pace, to get to the main conflict, the fight with Tarnation. The setting, as in most tall tales, was vital to the telling of the story. The eVideo performer used a Southern affect, and there was twangy banjo music playing behind her telling, all adding to the setting of Tennessee. The rhythm of speech, and the Southern vernacular metaphors in the writing complemented each other. This was clearly culturally specific and though it was stereotypical, I think it is stereotypical of tall tales in general. No one was being made into a joke, in this fun and silly story.
The illustrations added greatly to the story, sometimes picking up where words left off, giving the observer more information than the words. They also help to show the sheer size of Swamp Angel, which can be gotten though the writing, but only by the careful observation that many children will not be capable of. The eVideo utilized the illustrations well, zooming in when focus was needed in a particular area and adding small animations of things like clouds or moving the illustrations to create a more active fight scene. Though this tall tale could be told without the book, I would not recommend it. The illustrations add so much to the story in setting and content, that it would feel incomplete without them. There are times when words are not present or are busy doing something else and the illustrations pick it up. In the beginning as Angelica is growing up, before she becomes Swamp Angel, she is seen putting out a fire with rain clouds, though the action is not described. Also, after the big fight with Tarnation is won and she is dragging the pelt to Montana, people can be seen taking his claws and making boats from them. These little touches in the art work succeed in adding depth to the story and the eVideo, with its added music and performer make the story into a world its own. If I were to share this with a class, I would first read the book and then share the video with the class so we could talk about the differences and connections they can make. This could even be used in a high school setting to talk about how different mediums can affect story.

“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, School Library Journal in December 1994

“…an original creation in the tall-tale tradition whose exploits are guaranteed to amaze and amuse a wide swath of readers…To complement the narrative, Zelinsky, working on cherry and maple veneers, employs an elegant palette, adapting elements of American folk art. His sense of line matches the exuberance of the text. Visually exciting, wonderful to read aloud, this is a picture book to remember.” – Mary M. Burns, Horn Book Guide in March 1995

“Zelinsky’s (Rumpelstiltskin) stunning American-primitive oil paintings, set against an unusual background of cherry, maple and birch veneers, frankly steal the show here. Their success, however, does not diminish the accomplishment of Isaacs, whose feisty tall tale marks an impressive picture-book debut. Her energy-charged narrative introduces Angelica Longrider… This valiant heroine is certain to leave youngsters chuckling-and perhaps even keeping a close watch on the night sky.” – Contributor, Publisher’s Weekly on October 3rd 1994


Gather with other books illustrated by Paul O. Zelinsky and discuss the art. Use works such as:

  • Zelinsky, Paul O., Rapunzel ISBN 9781435297302
  • Zelinsky, Paul O., Rumpelstiltskin ISBN 9780329124205
  • Isaacs, Anne and Paul O. Zelinsky, Dust Devil ISBN 9780375867224

For ages 10 and up, gather with other American tall tales and have students use elements they find to create their own tall tale. Use a few versions of tall tales such as:

  • Johnny Appleseed
  • Davy Crockett
  • Paul Bunion 

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