The Pirates of Crocodile Swamp by Jim Arnosky

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The Pirates of Crocodile Swamp by Jim Arnosky

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Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 5/5
Reviewer: Jason Mark Curley
Reviewed by Jason Mark Curley
Summary: An emotional adventure. Without doubt, my top book of the year.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 240 Date: March 2009
Publisher: Putnam Publishing Group
ISBN: 978-0399250682

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Sandy and John do their best to look after their younger brother, Terry. Sandy loves his younger brothers and admires John's knowledge and love of animals and nature in general, and Terry's innocent fascination with the world. Along with their mother, the children live in constant fear of their often drunk and violent father. One night, after drinking a bottle of whiskey and unsuccessfully trying to hide it in his pocket, he comes home in one of his worse than normal states. Sandy's mother confronts him and he takes off his belt to beat her. He swings his arm back and accidentally knocks Terry down the stairs – killing him.

At the funeral Terry's death is only ever referred to as an accident, but the children know what has happened. Sandy's mother finally loses it and just sits in front of the television all day, saying the same words over and over again He killed my baby boy. This starts making everyone crazy and their fathers tantrums become worse – he starts to break things around the house.

On an afternoon soon after the funeral, Sandy's dad picks John and him up in his car after school. He drives in completely the wrong direction from home and keeps driving. The boys realise he's running away, but from what. When they stop in a motel in Florida, it's John who plainly announces that he thinks their mother is dead, killed by their father – why else would he run away? They decide that the best thing for them to do is escape. They see a programme on the TV about a wild place in Key Largo, only four miles away, called Crocodile Swamp. After taking some money from their drunk father they run away from the motel, but will they ever be able to entirely shake off their father and find out the truth about their mother?

The first think I need to tell you about this book is the general quality of the writing. From the moment I opened it, it became increasingly obvious that this is written by someone who absolutely understands how to write for children. Arnosky's prose style is uncluttered and accomplished, very reminiscent of the best work of Roald Dahl, but with an American slant. Everything is handled so well, characterisation, dialogue, sense of place, descriptions, pacing. Arnosky gives just the right amount of detail, never lingering on a description when the reader already has enough to go on. Also, this goes for the other elements of writing, just giving enough of everything to keep me glued to the narrative and wanting more.

I think this is the only reason he gets away with his opening set up and entry into act two. As you can see, he uses a very emotional set of hooks to get the reader into the characters. You feel sorry for Sandy and John the moment you've first read about the death of Terry, but it all seems a bit too easy and that Arnosky is pulling on the most soul destroying heartstrings to do his work for him. This is potentially a very dangerous move, especially if the content of the book doesn't live up to its opening, but I have to say that it does, and at no point was I ever disappointed. Worried I'd be let down, yes. Disappointed, no.

This book deserves to be a big hit and will keep your kids wanting more. It's so great to find a new author who I feel has really added something to the genre and my understanding of it. I'm glad I read it and will now be on the look out got more of Jim Arnosky's work. This really is my book of the year.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

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