Carl Hiaasen might not be the first author that readers think of when they hear the term "juvenile fiction." His popular novels for adults, including Skinny Dip, Tourist Season, and Double Whammy, usually center around crime, corruption, sex, and scandal. However, with Hoot, Hiaasen's first novel for kids, the author applies his trademark style and humor to a tale more appropriate for a younger audience.
Hoot tells the story of Roy Eberhardt, a middle-schooler whose family has just been transplanted from the wilds of Montana to the sunny tourist town of Coconut Cove, Florida. Curiosity about a boy he notices running barefoot leads Roy to become involved in a crusade to save a colony of burrowing owls from destruction at the hands of a pancake house conglomerate more concerned with wealth than wildlife. The book offers a clear message about the importance of protecting the environment, a topic found in many of Hiaasen's fiction and nonfiction writings.
In a 2002 interview for the Orlando Sentinel, Hiaasen tells journalist Nancy Pate why the issue of environmentalism is a perfect match for young readers:
They're an audience not yet poisoned by growing older. Their initial moral impulse is the right one. You don't get screwed up until you get older. Kids know the difference between right and wrong.
Hoot became an instant hit upon its release in 2002, not only with the young readers for whom it was written, but also with many of Hiaasen's adult fans. Hoot has been recognized as a Newbery Honor Book, and its success has led the author to continue writing juvenile fiction in addition to his adult-targeted novels. The book was adapted into a feature film in 2006. The author's second book for young adults, Flush, was published in 2005. Like Hoot, the book is set in Florida and features a strong environmentalist theme.
Carl Hiaasen was born near Fort Lauderdale in Plantation, Florida, on March 12, 1953. His parents, a lawyer and a teacher, also had three other children. He earned a degree in journalism from the University of Florida, and he joined the Miami Herald as a reporter in 1976. Hiaasen eventually became an investigative reporter for the paper and began a regular column in 1985 discussing local issues, especially those centered on the environment, land development, and political corruption. During this time, he co-wrote three mystery novels with his friend and fellow journalist Bill Montalbano. Those books were Powder Burn (1981), Trap Line (1982), and A Death in China (1984).
Hiaasen's first solo novel, Tourist Season, was published in 1986. The book—about a group of eco-terrorists who try to save the Florida Everglades by murdering tourists, which they hope will ruin the state's tourist trade—was a commercial success, and it established the framework and tone for Hiaasen's future books. Hiaasen's second novel, Double Whammy, followed in 1987. The author has steadily published novels and nonfiction ever since.
Other books by Hiaasen include Skin Tight (1989), Stormy Weather (1995), Sick Puppy (2000), Basket Case (2002), and Skinny Dip (2004). The author has also written two young adult novels, Hoot (2002) and Flush (2004). For Hoot, Hiaasen received both a Newbery Honor and the Rebecca Caudill Young Reader's Award. Two of Hiaasen's books, Strip Tease and Hoot, have been adapted into major motion pictures.
As of 2006, the author lives in Florida with his family where, in addition to his novels, he continues to write a weekly column for the Miami Herald.
Hoot begins on a Monday morning as Roy Eberhardt, a relatively new student at Trace Middle School in Coconut Cove, Florida, is terrorized by a bully named Dana Matherson as they both ride the bus to school. Dana calls Roy "cowgirl," because Roy and his family moved to Florida from Montana. As Dana pushes Roy's head against the window, Roy notices a tanned, blond boy running along the sidewalk next to the bus. At first, Roy thinks the boy is running to catch the bus, but then notices that the boy has no schoolbooks, no backpack, and—most strangely—no shoes. The boy swiftly runs off into the distance, leaving Roy to ponder what he might be up to.
That morning, Coconut Cove police officer David Delinko responds to a call at the corner of East Oriole and Woodbury, a vacant lot soon to be the site of a new Mother Paula's All American Pancake House chain restaurant. The foreman of the site, a bald man known as Curly, tells the officer that someone has pulled up all the survey stakes on the property. Delinko also learns that the property is covered with holes that indicate the presence of small, burrowing owls. When Delinko asks what will happen to the creatures when construction begins, Curly just laughs and asks, "What owls?"
Roy cannot stop thinking about the running boy, and looks for him every morning on the bus ride to school. Finally, on Friday, Roy sees the boy again at the same bus stop as before. Roy moves to get off the bus and follow him, but Dana grabs him from behind and starts to choke him. Trying to break free, Roy punches Dana in the nose and runs off the bus, pushing past a tall blond girl on the way. Roy chases the shoeless boy all the way to the local golf course, where the boy runs across the fairway and disappears into a stand of Australian pine trees. Roy follows, but he gets hit in the head by a golf ball and is knocked unconscious.
Roy finds himself defending his strange behavior to Miss Hennepin, the vice principal of Trace Middle School, whose most striking physical characteristic is "a single jet-black hair sprouting above her upper lip." Roy finds out that his punch actually broke Dana's nose. Although Miss Hennepin seems to believe Roy's version of events, which include no mention of the barefoot boy he was chasing, he is suspended from taking the bus for two weeks—a punishment he welcomes. Roy must also write an apology letter to Dana.
During lunch, Roy is approached by the blond girl he pushed past on the bus while pursuing the barefoot boy. She is tall and athletic, with red-rimmed eyeglasses and curly hair. She seems to know about the barefoot boy, and she offers Roy this simple warning: "Mind your own business, if you know what's good for you."
After school, Roy tells his parents about punching Dana and getting hit by a golf ball. As with Miss Hennepin, he leaves out the part about the barefoot boy. He writes his apology letter to Dana, offering a simple solution to their conflict: "I promise not to hit you ever again as long as you don't bother me on the school bus."
Officer Delinko once again finds himself at the Mother Paula's construction site. In addition to pulling up all the survey stakes, someone has let the air out of the tires on a flatbed truck carrying three portable latrines for the coming construction crew. When Delinko examines the latrines, he finds that someone has placed two live alligators in each one. The case has escalated beyond simple vandalism, and the local police captain is pressured to put an end to the disruptions. Officer Delinko, eager to solve the case, volunteers to stake out the construction site on his own time.
On the following Monday, Officer Delinko arrives at the Mother Paula's construction site before sunrise, hoping to catch the elusive vandal. While there, Delinko spies two of the burrowing owls that live on the site: "These were the dinkiest owls Officer Delinko had ever seen—only eight or nine inches tall. They were dark brown with spotted wings, whitish throats, and piercing amber eyes." Soon after, Delinko drifts off to sleep in his squad car. When he wakes to the sound of Curly banging on the door, he finds that his car's windows have all been spray-painted black and the site's survey stakes have been pulled up and scattered again.
At school, Roy discovers from his new friend Garrett that the blond girl who threatened him is Beatrice Leep, also known as "Beatrice the Bear." Roy also finds out Dana's address and drops off his apology on his way home. Dana, still black-eyed and wrapped in gauze, just crumples the letter and tells Roy that he will settle the score once he has recovered and returned to school.
After finishing his homework, Roy goes back to the golf course, looking for the barefoot boy. He finds the boy's camp hidden in the woods, but the boy is nowhere to be found. While searching through the boy's things, Roy accidentally dumps out a garbage bag filled with poisonous cottonmouth snakes, which appear to have blue and silver glitter on their tails. The barefoot boy appears and covers Roy's head with a hood and ties his hands. The boy asks what Roy is doing there, and Roy tells him the truth. The boy denies ever running past the school bus and simply says that Roy must leave. Roy asks the boy's name and learns only that he is called Mullet Fingers.
The next morning, the local paper runs a story about the vandalism at the Mother Paula's site, including the spray-painting of Officer Delinko's car windows while he was asleep inside. As punishment for the whole embarrassing mess, the police captain assigns Delinko to a month of desk duty. Delinko accepts his punishment, but he still plans to monitor the construction site in his free time. After having his reputation damaged, he is now even more determined to catch the culprit.
Dana is still absent from school that day, giving Roy time to think about the inevitable showdown with the bully. After arriving home from school, Roy grabs a shoebox from under his bed and rides his bike to the golf course. He returns to the boy's campsite but finds that it has been completely cleaned out. As he leaves the golf course, he finds that someone has stolen his bike. He starts walking home as both night and heavy rain begin to fall. Beatrice is sitting on his bike as he reaches the bus stop where he first saw the running boy.
Beatrice takes Roy to an old ice cream truck in a junkyard, where she asks about his shoebox. Roy tells her that it contains a pair of shoes, practically new, that he plans to give to the boy known as Mullet Fingers. Beatrice tells Roy that she will make sure the boy gets the shoes if Roy stops trying to find him. When Roy asks how she knows Mullet Fingers, Beatrice reveals that he is her stepbrother. He is called Mullet Fingers because he can catch a mullet—a small, swift fish—out of the water with his bare hands. The boy is supposed to be away at a "special" school in Alabama, but he ran away and returned to Coconut Cove without his parents' knowledge. Beatrice makes Roy promise not to tell. Then she bites a hole in one of his bike tires to give him an excuse for getting home so late.
Driving home from work, Officer Delinko hears on the police scanner that a boy named Roy went missing on his bicycle during the storm. Delinko finds Roy, gives him a ride home, and asks Roy to let him know if he hears any students talking about the pranks going on at the Mother Paula's construction site. He hopes helping Roy will please Roy's father, who works for the U.S. Department of Justice, which may somehow boost his career in law enforcement.
Curly, the construction foreman at the site, receives a call from the vice president for corporate relations at Mother Paula's. The man, Chuck Muckle, is upset about the local news article mentioning vandalism at the construction site. Muckle tells Curly to get some attack dogs to guard the site: "Rottweilers are the best, but Dobermans'll do." Muckle also makes it clear that Curly will be fired if there are any more delays. Curly has a chain-link fence built around the lot, and gets four rottweilers to guard the site at night.
During Roy's first trip on the bus after his suspension is lifted, Dana starts terrorizing him. Beatrice sits between the two boys and puts a momentary end to the harassment. Dana spreads the word that he is going to beat Roy up after school that day. Roy tries to sneak out through the gym, but Dana grabs him and pulls him into a utility closet. The two struggle, and just as Dana is about to choke Roy, someone opens the door and pulls Dana away.
At the construction site, Curly finds the rottweilers' trainer, Kalo, desperately trying to round up his dogs and leave. He accuses Curly of trying to kill his precious animals, and says that the site is overrun with poisonous snakes. Curly finds one of the snakes, a cottonmouth with a glittery tail. He reports the incident to Chuck Muckle, who again warns him that any more delays will cost Curly his job.
Roy discovers that Beatrice is the one who saved him from Dana in the utility closet and that she then tied Dana, wearing nothing but his underwear, to the school flagpole. She whisks Roy away to his house on a "borrowed" bicycle to get bandages, antibiotics, and ground beef, which they tell Roy's mother is for a science experiment. Roy and Beatrice ride to the ice cream truck at the junkyard, where Roy finds out the real reason for the first-aid supplies: Mullet Fingers has been badly bitten by one of the dogs from the Mother Paula's construction site. Roy treats the boy's wounds, and the three make their way back to the construction site with the ground beef.
Finally, Roy gets an explanation for all the strange occurrences at the site. Mullet Fingers released the cottonmouths to scare the dogs (though the cottonmouths had their mouths taped shut to protect the dogs) and got bitten by a dog in the process. He was also the one responsible for putting alligators in the portable latrines, spray-painting Officer Delinko's car windows, and repeatedly pulling up the survey stakes. It has all been part of an effort to protect the families of burrowing owls who live on the site. Mullet Fingers places wads of the ground beef near the owls' burrows for them to eat.
As they leave the site, Mullet Fingers's condition worsens. Not knowing what else to do, Beatrice and Roy take him to the emergency room. They give Roy's name to protect the runaway boy. Officer Delinko, still trying to redeem himself, goes to the Eberhardts' to ask Roy's parents about some kids he had seen acting strangely, a stolen bicycle, and a bit of torn fabric he found on the fence at the construction site. While he is there, the Eberhardts receive a call from the emergency room that Roy has been hurt. When they arrive at the hospital, they find Roy unharmed. Mullet Fingers and Beatrice have slipped away.
That same night, Curly shows up at the construction site for a long weekend of round-the-clock surveillance to prevent any more delays before the Mother Paula's groundbreaking ceremony. He imagines meeting Kimberly Lou Dixon, the pretty young "former Miss America runner-up" who portrays elderly Mother Paula in television commercials.
Back at home, Roy tells his father the whole story of Mullet Fingers and the owls. His father explains that because the Mother Paula's company owns the land, it can probably do whatever it wants with it, but he promises to give the matter some thought.
On Saturday, Roy gets a new tire for his bike, finds Beatrice's address in the phone book and rides to her house. He hopes to talk to Beatrice about the previous night's events, but her stepmother rudely informs Roy that Beatrice has house cleaning to do, and she cuts their conversation short. Roy then rides to Dana's house, where he tries to convince Dana to just leave him alone. Instead, Dana vows to "kick [his] skinny ass to kingdom come."
Roy then checks on Mullet Fingers, who is recovering well. Roy attempts to convince Mullet Fingers to stop his campaign of vandalism, fearing that the boy will get caught and sent to juvenile hall. Mullet Fingers is not worried, however. The boy takes Roy to a tidal creek with a half-submerged crab boat called the Molly Bell, where the boys sit on the roof of the boat and enjoy nature. While there, Mullet Fingers demonstrates how he got his name by grabbing a fish right out of the water as it swims by.
Convinced that Mullet Fingers will get caught or injured if he returns to the construction site, Roy devises a plan to help his friend. He rides to Dana's house and lures Dana outside by mooning him through his window. Dana chases him for a few blocks, but not all the way to the construction site as Roy had planned. Roy lets Dana catch him, and convinces him that if he lets Roy go, Roy will tell him where he can find a whole case of cigarettes just waiting to be taken. Roy tells Dana that the cigarettes are in Curly's trailer at the Mother Paula's construction site.
Dana sneaks onto the construction site, but is discovered by Curly when he inadvertently sets off some large rattraps on the property. Curly pulls a gun on Dana, who tells the construction foreman that his name is Roy Eberhardt. Dana flees as soon as he gets a chance, but he is quickly apprehended by Officer Delinko. The policeman knows the boy is not Roy Eberhardt, but he believes that he has finally caught the Mother Paula's vandal.
Curly ends his round-the-clock surveillance of the construction site, convinced that the vandal has been stopped. He returns to the site on Sunday to look for his gun, which he had somehow lost during the commotion with Dana. There, he discovers that someone has removed the driver's seats from each of the construction machines at the site, making them impossible to operate. Adding insult to injury, Curly finds his gun in the bottom of one of the portable toilets.
That same day, Roy's parents take him on an airboat ride in the Everglades. Roy is astounded at the beauty he finds there, and the trip strengthens his resolve to find some legal way to stop the Mother Paula's people from harming the burrowing owls. Lying in bed that night, Roy hears someone calling his name and finds Beatrice hiding under his bed. She tells him that her home situation has gotten "kinda hairy" and that she did not know where else to go. Roy lets her spend the night. She is gone when he wakes up the next morning. She is absent from school the next day and Roy worries about her.
On Monday, Curly tells Chuck Muckle about the missing driver's seats and that he has ordered new ones, but they will not arrive until Wednesday. Muckle tells Curly that Wednesday will be the day for the groundbreaking ceremony, and that he must not let anything else delay construction. Curly asks Muckle about the owls on the property, but Muckle stubbornly asserts that the owl burrows are deserted—even though both men know better.
Roy visits Coconut Cove City Hall and asks the clerk to see the file containing permits for the Mother Paula's construction site. The clerk looks for the file but discovers that it is either missing or checked out.
After Dana Matherson is apprehended, the case of the Mother Paula's vandal is officially closed. Officer Delinko is returned to active duty. However, both he and the police captain suspect that Dana is not the real culprit behind the construction site shenanigans, so Officer Delinko continues to keep a careful watch on the site. That night, while patrolling the site, Delinko once again sees the burrowing owls. It finally dawns on him what the construction will mean: "Now he understood what would happen to the little owls if he did his job properly, and it weighted him with an aching and unshakeable sorrow."
On Tuesday, Roy is relieved to learn that Beatrice had broken her tooth biting a toe ring off her stepmother's foot, not in an accident as he had heard. He sneaks away from school during lunchtime and visits Mullet Fingers. Roy gives the boy his mother's digital camera and tells him they might be able to stop the Mother Paula's construction if Mullet Fingers can take a picture of the burrowing owls on the site, which Roy has discovered are a protected species. Back at school, Roy tells his history class about the impending destruction of the owls and their habitat.
On Wednesday morning, Chuck Muckle arrives at the construction site for the groundbreaking ceremony, accompanied by Kimberly Lou Dixon, the young actress who plays Mother Paula for all media events. She uses Curly's trailer to change into her matronly costume and gray wig in preparation for the ceremony as prominent local officials and television news crews arrive at the site.
Roy and Beatrice both get notes from their parents allowing them to leave school and attend the groundbreaking ceremony. Beatrice gives Roy back his digital camera and passes along the message that Mullet Fingers took the pictures Roy requested. When they arrive at the construction site, both are surprised to see a group of their fellow students there along with several parents. At the height of the ceremony, Roy speaks up about the owls. Chuck Muckle tries to silence him, but Kimberly Lou Dixon, ignorant of the whole situation, wants to hear. Roy offers the digital camera pictures as proof, but realizes too late that the pictures are blurry and useless.
Then Mullet Fingers calls attention to himself. He has shoved himself down into one of the owl burrows all the way up to his neck. He tells "Mother Paula" that if she wants to build a pancake house there, she will have to bury him along with the owls. Chuck Muckle attempts to end the demonstration, but he finds himself outnumbered. As the demonstration is broadcast live on television, one of the burrowing owls flies down and alights on Mullet Fingers's head.
By the next morning, the story of the owls is all over the news. When a reporter shows up to interview Roy, his father gives Roy a copy of the missing City Hall file concerning the Mother Paula's construction site. The file does not contain an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), which is required before any construction can begin. Roy gives the file to the reporter.
In the following weeks, it is revealed that the EIS was completed, and that a member of the city council made the report "disappear" in exchange for a cash bribe. Kimberly Lou Dixon resigns from her role as Mother Paula, and finds that taking such a stand boosts her acting career. Chuck Muckle, however, is demoted and forced to attend an anger management class, which he fails. He ultimately resigns from Mother Paula's and takes a job as a cruise director. The Mother Paula's company is forced to abandon plans to build on the construction site, and donates thousands of dollars to help with nature conservancy in an attempt to restore its image.
Mullet Fingers—whose real name is Napoleon Bridger Leep—is temporarily returned to his dysfunctional family. Before long, his mother has him sent to juvenile detention by falsely accusing him of stealing. He disappears again after breaking out of the detention center with the unwitting help of Dana Matherson. People begin to visit the empty lot at Woodbury and East Oriole to watch the owls.
Weeks later, Roy swims out to the Molly Bell one last time with the hope of finding his elusive friend. While he tries to learn the trick of catching mullets, he feels he is being laughed at. He discovers a surprise when he returns to the shore: Although he had left his shoes hanging in a tree, he returns to find one in the water with a tiny silver fish inside. "Guess I'll have to come back another day and try again," he decides. "That's what a real Florida boy would do."
Curly, whose real name is Leroy Branitt, is the dour, bald foreman of the Mother Paula's construction site. He spends much of the book trying to keep the construction site vandal from delaying construction efforts, to no avail. Ultimately, after his job is threatened by Chuck Muckle, Curly is forced to live at the construction site to keep an eye out for the vandal.
Although Curly knows about the burrowing owls, he denies their presence when others inquire about them, as he has been instructed to do by Muckle. In the end, though he loses his job, Curly is happy to see the birds protected, and he even visits the site to see them.
Kelly Colfax is a reporter from the Gazette who interviews Roy after the demonstration at the groundbreaking ceremony. Roy tells her about the missing Environmental Impact Statement, and she breaks the news of the scandal in her newspaper.
David Delinko is a police officer for the Coconut Cove Police Department. He dreams of one day becoming a detective, and he eagerly accepts an assignment to watch over the Mother Paula's construction site with the hope that he will catch the person vandalizing the site. However, Delinko falls asleep on the job, and the vandal paints his squad car windows black. Delinko is assigned to desk duty for one month as punishment, but he still finds himself stopping by the construction site in his free time, hoping to catch the vandal who has jeopardized his career in law enforcement.
Although he is generally looked down on by his superiors at the station, Delinko proves to be an astute investigator. After Dana is arrested as the construction site vandal, Delinko knows that the real vandal is still out there somewhere. Delinko is also one of the few adults in the book who express genuine sadness at the prospect of the owls losing their habitat.
Kimberly Lou Dixon
Kimberly Lou Dixon is the former beauty queen, now an actress, who has been hired to play Mother Paula for the pancake house's television ads and media events. The young woman wears a gray wig and spectacles in her role as the matronly Mother Paula.
A film adaptation of Hoot, written and directed by Wil Shriner, was released by New Line Cinema in 2006. The film stars Logan Lerman as Roy Eberhardt and Luke Wilson as Officer Delinko. The movie features music by Jimmy Buffett (who also has a small role in the film).
An abridged audio recording of Hoot was released by Pan MacMillan in 2003. The book is read by Kerry Shale and is currently available on compact disc.
An unabridged audio recording of Hoot was released by Listening Library 2002. The book is read by Chad Lowe and is currently available in both compact disc and audio cassette formats. This version is also available as an audio download through www.audible.com.
An electronic version of Hoot was released in Microsoft Reader format by Random House Children's Books in 2002. It is currently available through www.amazon.com.
At the construction site groundbreaking ceremony, Kimberly Lou first discovers the truth about the burrowing owls and the heartlessness of the company she works for. She immediately sides with the protestors and ends up enjoying a substantial career boost for her stand.
Liz Eberhardt is Roy's mother. She is sympathetic and does her best to defend her son when he is in trouble or accused of wrongdoing.
Roy's father, also named Roy, works for the U.S. Department of Justice. He is proud of his son for sticking up for himself and the owls, and he helps Roy get the information that stops the construction on the owls' habitat.
Roy Eberhardt is a middle-schooler who has recently moved with his family from Montana to Coconut Cove, Florida. His schoolmates sometimes call him "Cowgirl" or "Tex" because he comes from a state the kids in Florida associate with cattlemen. Although he misses Montana's natural beauty, he eventually discovers that Florida has a great deal of its own natural beauty to offer.
As the new kid at school, Roy spends much of his time being terrorized by bully Dana Matherson. Roy spends the rest of his time unraveling the mystery of a barefoot running boy he sees while on the bus one morning. He eventually forms a relationship with the boy, known as Mullet Fingers, and the boy's stepsister, Beatrice Leep. The three work together to stop Mother Paula's All American Pancake House from building a new restaurant on a lot where several burrowing owls live. Roy, wary of breaking the law because his father works for the justice department, attempts to find some legal way to stop the construction.
Bruce Grandy is a Coconut Cove city councilman. He pushes the police to stop the vandalism at the Mother Paula's construction site, and he is later found to have accepted a bribe to remove the restaurant's Environmental Impact Statement from the city's files.
Garrett is Roy's friend at school. Garrett's mother is a school guidance counselor, and Garrett is able to steal Dana's address for Roy from his mother's office.
Dr. Gonzalez is the physician who treats Mullet Fingers in the emergency room.
Miss Hennepin is the vice principal at Trace Middle School. Roy must answer to her when he gets in trouble.
Kalo is the German dog trainer whose four rottweilers guard the Mother Paula's construction site for just one night. He is furious and accuses Curly of trying to kill his dogs with poisonous snakes—cottonmouths that Mullet Fingers had released there.
Beatrice Leep, also known as "Beatrice the Bear," is the stepsister of Mullet Fingers. She is tall and athletic, a star member of the school soccer team. In the beginning of the book, she warns Roy to mind his own business when it comes to Mullet Fingers. As the story progresses, Beatrice proves to be a powerful ally for Roy, both in his efforts to help the owls and in his attempts to avoid annihilation at the hands of Dana Matherson. At one point, as Dana attempts to choke Roy in a school utility closet, Beatrice pulls Dana off him, strips the bully to his underwear, and ties him to the school flagpole. She also exhibits an extraordinary ability to bite through things, such as Roy's bicycle tire and a toe ring on her stepmother's foot.
Leon "Lurch" Leep is a former professional basketball player. He is Beatrice's father, Lonna's husband, and Mullet Fingers's stepfather. He is calm and civil when his stepson appears unexpectedly. He and his wife fight constantly.
Lonna Leep is Leon's wife, Mullet Fingers's mother, and Beatrice's stepmother. She dismisses her own son as a "bad seed" and gets him arrested on false charges after he returns to the household.
Napoleon Bridger Leep
Dana Matherson is a beefy middle-school bully who constantly terrorizes smaller students and outsiders such as Roy. When Dana attempts to choke Roy on the bus one day, Roy breaks Dana's nose with a punch to the face. Although Roy later tries to apologize, Dana vows to have his revenge, and he spends much of the rest of the story attempting to fulfill that vow. Dana is arrested for breaking into the Mother Paula's construction site in an attempt to steal a case of cigarettes. Officials claim that Dana is the infamous construction site vandal, but Officer Delinko knows that Dana is just not bright enough to pull off such stunts.
At the end of the book, Dana plans to break out of juvenile hall with Mullet Fingers. Knowing that Dana cannot run fast or far, Mullet Fingers uses the bully as a decoy so he can make his escape.
Chuck Muckle is the vice president for corporate relations for Mother Paula's All American Pancake Houses. Although Muckle knows about the burrowing owls on the construction site, he attempts to deny their presence and rushes into construction to prevent a costly delay.
Though Roy and Mullet Fingers do not meet Muckle until the end of the book, Muckle is very much the villain of the story. As the heartless representative of Mother Paula's, he is the embodiment of a corporation's quest for profit without regard to the environmental consequences of its actions. In the end, Muckle finds himself demoted for his deceitful actions, and he ultimately resigns from Mother Paula's to become a cruise director.
Mullet Fingers is the mysterious barefoot running boy Roy sees at the start of the book. He is a runaway who lives on his own in the woods. A lover of nature, he is the one responsible for all the mischief taking place at the Mother Paula's construction site. Mullet Fingers possesses remarkable skills, such as the ability to handle poisonous snakes without injury. He is nicknamed for his ability to snatch a tiny baitfish right out of the water as it swims past him. His real name is Napoleon Bridger Leep.
The boy's stepsister is Beatrice Leep, the only family member with whom he maintains regular contact. At the end of Hoot, Mullet Fingers is sent back to live with his stepfather and mother, but after the notoriety generated by the owl crusade subsides, his mother has him sent to juvenile hall, from which he escapes and disappears.
Environmental Conservation and Animal Rights
The main theme of Hoot is protection and conservation of the natural environment and wildlife. This theme is shown most clearly in the children's attempts to save the burrowing owls at the Mother Paula's construction site. Later, many of the adults who find out about the owls also agree that they should be protected. The only character who appears to directly oppose the notion of conservation is Chuck Muckle, whose company stands to lose a great deal of money if construction on the new Mother Paula's site is stopped.
This message of environmental conservation is laid out for the reader when Roy goes on an airboat ride with his parents. By observing the natural beauty he does not typically see in Coconut Cove, he understands what Mullet Fingers is fighting for:
That night, lying in bed, Roy felt a stronger connection to Mullet Fingers, and a better understanding of the boy's private crusade against the pancake house. It wasn't just about the owls, it was about everything—all the birds and animals, all the wild places that were in danger of being wiped out. No wonder the kid was mad, Roy thought, and no wonder he was so determined.
The more specific issue of animal rights is also central to the book's message. Roy, Beatrice, and Mullet Fingers all believe without question that the burrowing owls have the right to remain in their homes, regardless of which human owns the land. Several of the adult characters believe that the issue is more complex, and try to convince themselves that the owls will only be relocated, rather than harmed by the construction. Roy offers his father this simple yet powerful argument:
How would you and Mom like it … if a bunch of strangers showed up one day with bulldozers to flatten this house? And all they had to say was, "Don't worry, Mr. and Mrs. Eberhardt, it's no big deal. Just pack up and move to another place." How would you feel about that?
With this argument, Roy compares the owls' rights to the same ones that any human might have. As he later discovers through his research, the owls do indeed possess certain unique rights granted by the government, since they are classified as a "species of special concern."
Mullet Fingers also takes great care when dealing with animals. Although he uses poisonous snakes to scare off the guard dogs at the construction site, he tapes their mouths shut so they cannot bite. He also marks the snakes' tails with glitter so he can easily find them, remove the tape, and set them free later. Although he gets his name from his ability to catch fish with his bare hands, Mullet Fingers quickly releases the fish he catches with Roy, and even sends it off with a fond farewell.
Although Hoot seems to offer a message of preservation with regard to the natural world, the book also deals with human adaptability. Roy adapts, with some difficulty, to his new environment in Florida, far from his old home in Montana. At first, Roy dismisses Florida as artificial and featureless compared to Montana, but after visiting the wrecked Molly Bell and taking a trip on an airboat through the Everglades, Roy realizes that Florida has just as much to offer as his old home. Some ospreys he sees while walking to his bus stop one morning also inspire Roy. Knowing that the birds thrive along the rivers of Montana, he is surprised to find that they also thrive in the markedly different surroundings of Florida: "If they can do it, Roy thought, maybe I can, too."
Roy's adaptation to his new school environment is just as important as his adjustment to this new habitat. At the start of the book, he is the "new kid," and does not even try to make new friends. He is also the victim of constant bullying by Dana Matherson. After Roy sees the barefoot running boy, he opens up to some of his fellow students, like Garrett and Beatrice. He also stands up for himself against Dana, a move which earns him both popularity and notoriety among other students.
TOPICS FOR FURTHER STUDY
- Many characters in Hoot have nicknames, whether they like them or not. What do the nicknames add to the story? Do they say more about the person they describe or the person who uses the nickname? Find different uses of nicknames in the book, and imagine what the person saying it means, as well as what the person hearing it feels. Share your interpretations in a group.
- Hoot tells the tale of three middle-schoolers who stand up to protect a colony of burrowing owls that live on land slated for industrial development. One of the children, Mullet Fingers, resorts to illegal measures, including vandalism and theft, to prevent construction from wiping out the owls. In contrast, Roy tries to work within the system to find a way to save the owls—though he later finds out that the system itself has been corrupted. In a small group, debate the two boys' contrasting ideas of effecting change. What if everyone did what they thought was right, regardless of the law? What if everyone obeyed the law, even if the lawmakers themselves were corrupt? In either case, is it possible to bring about change while still maintaining order? Pick teams to advocate one position or the other, then discuss the different paths to change.
- The notion of protecting the environment at all costs is a common theme in many of Hiaasen's novels. Should endangered lands and animals always be protected, regardless of the cost? Or should property owners be free to decide what to do with their own land, regardless of what lives there? If there is a middle ground between the two arguments, where should the line be drawn? Write an essay explaining your views on the rights of animals versus the rights of landowners If possible, offer a solution that you feel would serve the best interests of everyone involved. Use examples and arguments to support your position.
- In Hoot, Roy Eberhardt has just moved from his longtime home in Montana to the Florida town of Coconut Cove. Roy has trouble adjusting to life in his new environment, partly because of his strange new surroundings and partly because of his lack of friends. Imagine that a person like Roy will be moving to your area. How would you prepare him or her for life where you live? Write a letter to this newcomer detailing all the things you think will help him or her adjust. Be sure to include information and tips that will prepare him or her for the new environment, including details about the weather, landscape, official activities, and social outlets.
- The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service maintains a list of plant and animal species that are considered threatened or endangered across the United States. This determination is based on the number of plants or animals that have been found, as well as the rate at which the species appears to be expanding or declining. These endangered species receive a special level of federal protection to help them regain or maintain a foothold in the natural world. Sometimes this includes instituting special breeding programs or declaring large areas of land as protected habitat. Use the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service's TESS (Threatened and Endangered Species System), found at ecos.fws.gov/tess_public/StartTESS.do to locate the threatened and endangered species in your area. Choose one plant or animal, and write an article about it in a journalistic style. Imagine you are trying to rally the community to its cause. Be sure to include information about the organism's appearance, diet, habitat, and its importance to the ecosystem in your area. Also list any special protections or programs that have been implemented to help the species once again flourish, as well as any ways individuals in your community can help.
Hoot, like many works of juvenile fiction, emphasizes the theme of adolescent empowerment. In the book, the task of saving the burrowing owls is essentially left to three young people: Roy, Beatrice, and Mullet Fingers. Although several adults know about the owls, none of them actually does anything to help them until after Roy speaks out. Roy becomes, in essence, their most vocal protector.
Empowerment is also expressed in other ways through the characters of Mullet Fingers and Beatrice, who both exhibit larger-than-life characteristics. Mullet Fingers, for example, manages to single-handedly stymie construction efforts at the Mother Paula's site without ever being caught. He is also able to catch fish and poisonous snakes with his bare hands, and even while barefoot he can run faster and longer than any boy Roy has ever seen. Beatrice is able to handle the school bully with ease, and she possesses an almost superhuman ability to bite through things like Roy's bicycle tire and her stepmother's ring.
Third-Person Limited Omniscient Viewpoint
Hoot is written using a third-person limited omniscient viewpoint. This means that the story is told through an omniscient or "all-knowing" narrator instead of being directly told by one of the characters. Often, the third-person limited omniscient viewpoint allows the reader to know the thoughts of only one character, usually the main character. However, the story for Hoot is told through three different, alternating viewpoint characters: Roy Eberhardt, police officer David Delinko, and the bald construction site foreman called Curly. The author intertwines their stories to offer the reader a more complete picture of the motivations and circumstances that shape the events taking place in Coconut Cove.
The Pygmy Owl versus Land Developers in Arizona
At the same time Hoot was being written, a real-life battle to protect another species of owl was being waged in the Tucson area of Arizona. The cactus ferruginous pygmy owl, which grows to less than seven inches in height and weighs less than three ounces, was officially declared an endangered species by the U.S. government in 1997. This decision was based on evidence that the owl, once common in southern Arizona, had begun to rapidly disappear from the area. Arizona marks the northernmost portion of the tiny owl's natural habitat, with the majority of its range found in Central and South America. The pygmy owl is considered an "indicator species," which means that this species is especially sensitive to changes in its environment such as those caused by pollution or encroachment of human development.
Douglas Jehl, in a 2003 article written for the New York Times, offers some alarming statistics about the owls' declining presence in the United States: "In 1999,… some 41 adult pygmy owls were counted in Arizona, but those numbers dropped to 34 in 2000, 36 in 2001 and just 18 during breeding season in 2002." Faced with such startling evidence of decline, in 2002 the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service—spurred on by environmental groups such as the Center for Biological Diversity—sought to declare over one million acres of the owl's natural habitat as protected land.
Much of the owls' natural habitat falls within the Tucson area, and developers argued that such a large declaration of protected lands would limit Tucson's ability to accommodate civic and economic growth. Environmentalists insisted that the preservation of the owl species was more important than uncontrolled urban development. They also noted that the "protected land" status did not prevent developers from building, but merely placed reasonable limits on the amount of building that could take place. Developers then focused on another strategy: While the ferruginous pygmy owl was almost gone from the Arizona landscape, they argued that the species was abundant in Mexico, and therefore should not be protected as an endangered species within the United States. Naturalists countered that the Arizona population of the ferruginous pygmy owl was biologically distinct from other owl populations in Central and South America. The issue remained unresolved for years.
In 2006, to the dismay of environmental groups across the nation, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service reversed its position on the cactus ferruginous pygmy owl. The federal organization not only withdrew its request to declare a million acres of land as "critical habitat" for the owls, but also decided to remove the owls from its own list of federally protected endangered species. The service supported the developers' argument that the owls were not genetically different from other pygmy owl populations in Mexico and therefore did not qualify for special consideration. However, some biologists who have had the opportunity to study the Arizona owls believe that they constitute a genetically unique population. Although the 2006 ruling opens large areas of land around Tucson for immediate development, it is possible that further research could result in the owls' reinstatement as a federally protected species.
The Environmental Movement in America
The American environmental movement has its roots in the mid-nineteenth century, when nature-loving writers such as Henry David Thoreau and John Muir popularized the notion that vast areas of the country's untouched wilderness inherently offered more than just land and raw building materials. This idea, coupled with the prevailing belief that large areas of wilderness should be conserved to provide resources such as wood for future generations, eventually led to the formation of several national parks and a special federal branch to oversee them.
In the twentieth century, the environmental movement began to shift its focus from conservation of resources to preservation of organisms and ecosystems. The Fish and Wildlife Act of 1956 established a federal organization to oversee the protection and management of all wildlife in the United States. That organization, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, continues to promote public awareness of plants and animals in need of protection through its list of endangered and threatened species.
With its large number of unique ecosystems and distinctive plant and animal species, Florida has long been one of the most important states in the struggle to protect endangered organisms in America. As of 2006, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service listed 112 species of threatened or endangered plants and animals in Florida—the fourth-highest number of endangered species of any state.
Carl Hiaasen is best known for the quirky crime novels he writes for an adult audience; Hoot is the author's first novel written for younger readers. If reviews are any indication, Hiaasen's foray into the world of juvenile fiction has been a success.
In a review for Booklist, Bill Ott called the book a "thoroughly engaging tale." Ott also remarked, "the story is full of offbeat humor, buffoonish yet charming supporting characters, and genuinely touching scenes of children enjoying the wildness of nature." Paula Rohrlick, in a review for Kliatt, wrote, "Hiaasen's trademark over-the-top humor and satire, along with his concern for safeguarding Florida's wildlife, come through clearly and will entertain readers." Several other critics also compared Hoot to Hiaasen's previous works. In a review for Horn Book Magazine, Betty Carter called the book "quintessential Hiaasen … with a G rating." Daniel Radosh echoed these sentiments in a review for People, noting that the book, compared to other Hiaasen novels, features "a simplified plot, less cynical characters, and zero cussing or sex." Although he recommended that "sophisticated kids—and certainly adults—should seek out the unadulterated pleasures of Hiaasen's grown-up novels," Radosh did note that Hoot contains "plenty of suspense and subversive humor to engage youngsters, plus worthy lessons about personal and civic responsibility."
Some reviewers, judging the book strictly on its merits as a young adult novel instead of as a kid-friendly Hiaasen yarn, were slightly less impressed. Miranda Doyle, in a review for School Library Journal, called the book "entertaining but ultimately not very memorable." Doyle wrote, "The story is silly at times but rarely laugh-out-loud funny, and there are several highly unlikely scenes." Doyle also expressed disappointment that the story "wraps up a little too neatly," and that aside from Roy, "few of the other characters are well developed." Paul Magrs, in a review for the Guardian (London), disagreed about the characters—he wrote that "they leap off the page at us, and we want to spend time around them"—but he agreed that the book has a few shortcomings. One of the main problems, according to Magrs, is that the adult characters "are given too much time in the novel." Scenes between the adults, he contended, "divert the reader's attention away from the real anarchy of the novel and what the kids are doing," and break the momentum of the story in a way that "robs the book of some of its urgency." Magrs also felt that "all the hullabaloo over saving the cute burrowing owls is a letdown," though he did offer that "there is still much to enjoy elsewhere in the book."
In this essay, pop-culture writer Greg Wilson examines the ways in which Hoot is similar to Hiaasen's more adult works, and the ways in which it has more in common with typical juvenile literature.
If modern literature had a field guide like the one birdwatcher Roy Eberhardt uses in Hoot, Carl Hiaasen's novels would undoubtedly be classified as a strange and rare species that thrives only in the untamed, steamy depths of a Florida swamp. They have enough distinguishing characteristics to make for easy identification even when stood alongside other Florida species, such as the works of Elmore Leonard or Dave Barry. In such a literary bestiary, the juvenile novel Hoot would certainly be the hatchling of the Hiaasen bunch: While many of the distinctive markings are already clearly visible, in some ways it shares more in common with other hatchlings than it does with adults of its own species.
Anyone who has read a previous Hiaasen novel—any previous Hiaasen novel—will recognize several of his trademark characteristics in Hoot. First and foremost, the book is set in south Florida, just like all of Hiaasen's previous books. This area is where Hiaasen was born and raised, and where he continues to live and raise his family. He has spent three decades working at the Miami Herald, where he writes almost exclusively about local issues. Hiaasen has apparently taken the advice "write what you know" to heart, and Hoot continues the trend.
Hiaasen's preoccupation with environmentalism and the loss of Florida's natural habitat to land developers is a theme common in his fiction. The villains of his book Tourist Season—though the author treats them rather sympathetically—are militant environmentalists who are out to save Florida's Everglades from development. Were it not for their methods, which involve several gruesome murders, this group would probably have qualified as heroes. In Sick Puppy, the heroes fight to stop the bulldozing of a wildlife preserve on Toad Island and also to protect exotic animals from rich hunters on a Florida game preserve. It is not insignificant that the main bad guy in the book, Palmer Stoat, sets off the novel's entire chain of events by littering while driving down the highway. In Skinny Dip, an unscrupulous biologist suspects that his wife has found out about his employer's plans to make a fortune by dumping pollution into the Everglades, so he throws her off a cruise ship in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean. This theme is also present in Hoot, with the story centered on the efforts of three middle-schoolers to protect a colony of burrowing owls from destruction at the hands of a large corporation.
Hiaasen's novels also often feature political corruption as a tool of the wicked. In Sick Puppy, for example, villain Palmer Stoat makes his fortune by convincing legislators to pass bills that favor the corporations who hire him. The foil in Strip Tease is an inept politician trying to maneuver his way out of an election-year sex scandal. Hoot also contains political corruption as part of its larger story about the owls: A local official, Councilman Grandy, is paid off in exchange for causing the Environmental Impact Statement for the construction site to conveniently disappear. As in all of Hiaasen's books, the truth is revealed and the councilman gets his comeuppance in the end.
Another of Hiaasen's trademarks is his penchant for improbably odd—if not unbelievably absurd—characters, who create much of the humor in his books. One of his most enduring eccentrics is Skink, a former governor-turned-environmentalist hermit who lives in the swamp. Skink makes appearances in several Hiaasen novels, including Stormy Weather and Sick Puppy. While none of the characters in Hoot quite reaches that level of farce, the youngest Leeps are certainly heirs to the tradition. Beatrice Leep, aside from being strong enough to toss around a large bully and tie him half-undressed to the school's flagpole, also has "jaws like a wolverine." When Roy needs an excuse for being out late one night, she bites a hole through one of his bicycle tires so he can say he had a flat. Later, she breaks a tooth while biting a toe ring off her stepmother's foot.
Napoleon Bridger Leep, better known as Mullet Fingers, is even more eccentric. A sort of juvenile Skink in training, the nature-loving boy has run away from military school and lives like a recluse in the woods. The boy has no difficulty handling poisonous snakes and alligators, and he can even catch a fast, tiny fish in the water with his bare hands. Furthermore, before releasing the dangerous snakes at the construction site as part of his plan to protect the owls, he tapes their mouths shut to keep them from hurting any other creatures, and he glues glitter to their tails so he can find them later and remove the tape. No doubt Skink would be proud.
Despite these many similarities to Hiaasen's adult novels, there are important differences between Hoot and his adult-oriented works. By and large, these differences result in a book that is clearly more kid-friendly and tailored to the younger audience for whom the book is intended.
The most immediately apparent difference is the complete absence of sex, murder, and drugs in Hoot. Most of Hiaasen's novels for adults contain generous helpings of at least two of these elements, and some, such as Skinny Dip, include all three. This lack of depravity is all to be expected in a young adult book. Having an overboard swimmer in Skinny Dip hitch a ride on a floating bale of marijuana is comedy, but if the same scene appeared in Hoot it would surely draw accusations that the book is pro-drug propaganda. The only drugs mentioned in the book are cigarettes, and they appear only as a sort of mythic treasure sought by Roy's nemesis, Dana Matherson.
The relative lack of profanity ia nother difference between Hoot and Hiaasen's adult novels. While the dialogue in novels such as Skin Tight contains an abundance of profane language, the characters in Hoot—even the adults—are much better behaved. Still, the word "crap" appears once (uttered by bully Dana), "ass" shows up four times, and "damn" is in six lines of dialogue (only one of which issues from the mouth of one of the good guys). All decidedly PG-rated language.
Another trait Hoot shares with other juvenile fiction is its empowered young people. In the story, nearly all of the efforts to protect the owls are undertaken by kids. Many adults also know about the owls, but none of them works to stop their destruction. (In the end, Roy's father does help by pointing out the missing Environment Impact Statement for the construction site, but this is merely a coda to the main event.) Additionally, many of the adults are depicted as incompetent and/or hostile, such as the Leeps and the Mathersons. Officer Delinko, despite his good intentions and sharp investigative instincts, falls asleep while guarding the Mother Paula's construction site, and his squad car windows are spray-painted black while he naps.
Hiaasen also appears to have catered to young readers in his choice of victim for the story. By choosing the tiny burrowing owls, the author has deliberately gone with an animal that has an inherent "cute and cuddly" factor. Burrowing owls are not even technically "endangered" in Florida; they are listed by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service as a "species of special concern," which is less serious than either "threatened" or "endangered" status. On top of that, their status is "least concern," because the number of burrowing owls worldwide is substantial. Perhaps Hiaasen knew that many of Florida's actual endangered species, such as the oval pig-toe or the American burying beetle, would be a much harder sell when it came to sympathy-evoking cuteness.
Probably the greatest difference between Hoot and the author's other books is the use of a youngster's perspective to tell the story. This perspective is generally expected in juvenile fiction, and Hiaasen does not disappoint. As a viewpoint character, Roy Eberhardt is the perfect choice for a young reader to identify with: He is a little smarter than the average kid, he is a bit of an outsider, and he lacks the over-the-top eccentricities that make the other characters colorful but not relatable. Considering the conspicuous lack of children in the author's other books, his ability to craft a sympathetic and well-rounded boy as the main viewpoint character is impressive. It is worth noting, however, that Hiaasen does not completely shed his old habits. He is a fan of intertwining, multiple-viewpoint stories, and rather than strictly telling the story through Roy's eyes—as many juvenile novelists probably would—he also gives the reader sections told from the viewpoints of Officer Delinko and construction site foreman Curly. In addition, the author includes one scene that is inexplicably told from the viewpoint of the Coconut Cove police captain. It is an odd and jarring episode, which almost seems like an accident, especially because the scene could have just as easily been told from Delinko's viewpoint. Taken together, these "adult" sections of the book propel the plot, but, as some critics have noted, they also diminish the reader's connection with Roy and the younger characters.
Even with its kid-friendly content and message of adolescent empowerment, Hoot is still unmistakably Hiaasen through and through. For this, the author deserves special recognition: Not only has he caused many of his adult fans to read and enjoy juvenile fiction without shame, but he has also found a way to capture new fans who, as they grow up, are sure to return to the literary wilds, field guides in hand, in search of Hiaasen's more mature specimens.
WHAT DO I READ NEXT?
Flush (2005) is Carl Hiaasen's second book of juvenile fiction. It tells the story of Noah and his sister Abbey, whose father is arrested for sinking a casino boat. Their father claims that the owner of the boat was illegally dumping raw waste into surrounding waters. The children set out to prove their father right and shut down the corrupt casino owner for good. Like Hoot, Flush carries a strong message about protecting the environment.
Kick Ass (1999) is a collection of over two hundred essays written by Carl Hiaasen for the Miami Herald, where he worked for many years as an investigative journalist. The themes common in Hiaasen's novels—murder, drug smuggling, political corruption, scandal, and environmental destruction—are well represented here, with the main difference being that these stories are true.
Holes (1998), by Louis Sachar, is a Newbery Medal-winning book about a boy named Stanley who is sent away to juvenile detention camp for a crime he did not commit. While there, Stanley and the other boys at the camp are forced to dig holes in the desolate Texas landscape. At first Stanley believes it is merely a form of punishment, but he soon discovers that the warden is using the boys to search for a lost treasure. Sachar's sense of humor and fondness for quirky characters invite favorable comparisons to Hiaasen.
Henry David Thoreau's Walden (1854) is a landmark achievement in American environmentalist literature. Although intended as a treatise on simple living, the book received an equal amount of attention for its celebration of nature at its most unspoiled. The book remains one of the most popular American nonfiction titles ever published.
The Wild Muir: Twenty-Two of John Muir's Greatest Adventures (1994) offers a fascinating introduction to the remarkable and eccentric naturalist who founded the Sierra Club. This book, compiled by Lee Stetson, collects several of Muir's most breathtaking experiences with nature, encompassing everything from his childhood in Scotland to his deep and abiding love of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains.
Source: Greg Wilson, Critical Essay on Hoot, in Literary Newsmakers for Students, Thomson Gale, 2007.
In the following excerpt, Magrs explains why he feels that the moral lesson on Hoot takes away from its fun.
The best children's books always have hopeless, hapless, ineffectual adults in them. There's an anarchy in really good children's fiction that comes from putting the well-balanced, badly behaved child characters at the centre, making sense of a world that the grown-ups have mismanaged. Crime writer Carl Hiaasen's first novel for children, Hoot, is no exception. We've got lumbering, beer-guzzling, white-trash parents; useless policemen who get fooled into thinking it's still night because someone has painted their car windows black; and heads of multinational fast-food companies who think nothing of crushing the nests of cute burrowing owls.
Cute burrowing owls. That's what the book's really about. Which is a shame, because I was enjoying all of the anarchy and adolescent criminality leading up to the novel's eventual eco-friendly climax. So while the over-earnest cause and all the hullabaloo over saving the cute burrowing owls is a let-down, there is still much to enjoy elsewhere in the book.
Hiaasen's writing has a terse and witty turn that suits his central characters: Roy Eberhardt is new to Florida, and he is pitched into a world of school bullies, ignorant teachers and a mysterious, bare-footed boy who has run away from home. The casual everydayness of the language through which Roy's preoccupations and worries are brought home to us rings absolutely true: he is being bullied because he doesn't fit in.
But Roy's no pushover. He's resilient, and lashes back, apparently almost breaking his opponent Dana's nose. He also pals up with Beatrice Leep, the hardest girl in the school. She's another outcast who, at one point, manages to bite a sizeable chunk out of one of Roy's bike tyres (it's an alibi for his being out late). She also turns out to be the mysterious, bare-footed boy's sister. When Roy befriends her, he finds that the boy is known only as Mullet Fingers, and has run away because his mother and father don't actually want him. It's this older boy who draws Roy into the business with the cute burrowing owls: he has taken it upon himself to sabotage the building of a new Mother Paula's All American House of Pancakes.
This enterprise brings the kids into contact with the nightwatchmen, foremen and policemen of the novel: principally Officer Delinko, who dreams of promotion, and Leroy "Curly" Branitt, who sweats like "an Arkansas hog" and has to contend with baby alligators sneaking into his portaloos. While these characters are entertaining sideshows and it's great to see the kids run rings around them, they are given too much time in the novel. I wasn't as interested in the scenes that the adults have alone, with none of the principal characters there. We see Curly watching videos of Kimberly Lou Dixon (the beauty queen who dresses as Mother Paula to advertise pancakes), and he fantasises about meeting her. These interludes, while germane to the plot, divert the reader's attention from the real anarchy in the novel and what the kids are doing. We have to keep being reminded, every other chapter, what's going on with the plot to stop the house of pancakes landing on the owls, and that robs the book of some of its urgency.
As do the owls themselves. Call me heartless, but I'm not really convinced when these ingenious kids break into private property, set alligators and snakes on people and then reveal (by moonlight) the cause of all their ire: sweet, fluffy birds that are daft enough to burrow into a construction site. American fast-food outlets are nauseating enough, but I think tufty little wide-eyed creatures are worse; especially when they do a lap of victory after the fight is won, during the obligatory scene when the cynical classmates arrive in time with placards aloft and everyone goes up in arms on the owls' behalf to put a responsible stop to corporate America.
I think, if I were a kid, I'd start feeling the book was being a bit well-meaning and, even worse, that it was Trying to Tell Me Something.
This doesn't mean that it isn't touching and well-written. These characters leap off the page at us, and we want to spend time around them. I also like the fact that there are no easy answers for Mullet Fingers, who quietly walks away at the end, having shown Roy that he, too, can adapt to his new environment.
Source: Paul Magrs, "Owl Trouble," in the Guardian, February 22, 2003, p. 33.
In the following review, Pate talks to Hiaasen about his first children's book and the experiences from his own childhood that inspired it.
Carl Hiaasen's nerves were shot. He'd finished the first draft of his latest book and turned it over to a new critic.
Not one of the developers or politicians he routinely skewers in his columns for the Miami Herald. Not one of the corrupt bureaucrats he makes fun of in his best-selling novels, nor one of the inept crooks for which he devises hideous fates. He couldn't give a hoot what they think.
The new guy had nonchalantly taken Hiaasen's manuscript and disappeared with it—and still hadn't said anything after two whole days. Hiaasen knew that when the moment came there would be no pussyfooting around. He'd get the stark, unvarnished truth.
Finally, the 49-year-old writer couldn't stand it any longer. Oh so casually, he asked his stepson Ryan if he'd read the book yet. Ryan nodded. Silence. Hiaasen waited, then asked, so, what did you think?
"And he gave me a thumbs up," Hiaasen recalls. "I let out this huge sigh of relief. Because with 11-year-olds, you know a thumbs-up is as good as it gets. I had a hit in my house at least."
But not only at the Hiaasen home in the Florida Keys. Just published by Knopf, Hoot, Hiaasen's first tale for kids, looks like another winner for the author whose string of comic-noir best-sellers includes Basket Case, Stormy Weather, Native Tongue and Tourist Season. This new story of three middle-graders who set out to save tiny burrowing owls from being bulldozed necessarily lacks the varied expletives, sexual gymnastics and occasional dismemberments of Hiaasen's adult fiction. But its twisting plot, colorful characters and environmental subtext give it an across-the-board appeal.
"I can't wait to read it," said Bonner Altman, a South Carolina librarian attending the recent Southeast Booksellers Association convention in Fort Lauderdale, Fla., where Hiaasen began a short promotional blitz for the book.
The impetus for Hoot came from several directions, Hiaasen says. He received an e-mail that his 13-year-old nephew, Ben, had started reading his novels.
"I told him they were kind of grown up for him, and he said, 'Oh, Uncle Carl, I skip all the dirty parts.' Like I believed that," says Hiaasen, who notes he has at last written a novel his mother also can read without embarrassment.
That was a challenge, he admits with a laugh. "It was definitely hard. Changing the language, for one thing. And obviously there are scenes in my other books that would not occur in a book for kids. They are not Disney moments."
But this native South Floridian also wanted to put himself back in the shoes of an 11-year-old, an age when he spent most of his time playing in the woods, running across fields, wading through wetlands, at home with the abundant wildlife from benign birds to poisonous snakes.
"But there were no laws to protect anything," he says, remembering how he would routinely come across undeveloped areas where signs suddenly announced new strip malls and restaurants. "The next thing you'd know, there would be bulldozers and pavement and one more piece of the real Florida would be gone."
Hiaasen and his pals waged their own form of guerrilla warfare.
"We'd move around the survey stakes in the middle of the night," he says. "It wouldn't stop them, but it stalled them, messed them up for awhile."
Not surprisingly, survey stakes also are rearranged in Hoot, which features Roy Eberhart, the new kid at Trace Middle School in the fictional town of Coconut Cove. Roy misses his former home ("Disney World is an armpit compared to Montana") and is tired of being bullied on the school bus by the moronic Dana Matherson. But then he follows a mysterious barefoot running boy into a wooded hideaway and forms an unlikely alliance with soccer player Beatrice Leep.
Roy also discovers the small burrowing owls that live in a field designated as the site of a new Mother Paula's All-American Pancake House. But construction has been stalled by recent acts of vandalism—stakes pulled out, alligators dumped in the Travelin' Johnny, the windows of a squad car spray-painted while the investigating police officer dozed inside.
Many of the adult characters in Hoot could have stepped out of the pages of any Hiaasen novel—not-so-bright Officer Delinko, bald-headed construction foreman Curly, pancake house exec Chuck Murkle and Mother Paula spokesperson Kimberly Lou Dixon, "a runner-up in the Miss America contest in either 1987 or 1988."
As for the kids, Roy and Beatrice have the smarts of other Hiaasen heroes and heroines. The barefoot boy, nicknamed Mullet Fingers, is a fledgling eco-warrior and kindred spirit to the infamous nonconformist Skink, who appears in several of Hiaasen's novels.
And Hiaasen fans also will find themselves on familiar turf when it comes to the book's environmental message, which Hiaasen says kids are more receptive to than adults. Given the choice between a pancake house in the neigh-borhood—"lsn't that a kid's dream come true?"—and saving the owls, the kids will go for the owls.
"They'll tell you that you can't kill the animals," Hiaasen says. "They're an audience not yet poisoned by growing older. Their initial moral impulse is the right one. You don't get screwed up until you get older. Kids know the difference between right and wrong."
Quite simply, they give a hoot.
Source: Nancy Pate, "On Carl Hiaasen's New Children's Book," in the Orlando Sentinel, October 2, 2002.
In the following essay, Hiaasen explains his inspiration for Hoot to Scholastic.com's Flashlight Readers club.
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Source: Carl Hiaasen, "About Hoot," in Scholastic.com.
Carter, Betty, Review of Hoot in the Horn Book Magazine, Vol. 78, No. 6, November-December 2002, pp. 759-60.
"Conservation, Preservation and Environmental Activism: A Survey of the Historical Literature," National Park Service, www.cr.nps.gov/history/hisnps/NPSThinking/npsoah.htm (June 19, 2006).
Davis, Tony, "Bird Loses Status as Protected," in the Arizona Daily Star, Vol. 134, April 14, 2006, www.azstarnet.com/dailystar/dailystar/124606 (June 19, 2006).
Doyle, Miranda, Review of Hoot in School Library Journal, Vol. 48, No. 8, August 2002, p. 188.
Hiaasen, Carl, Hoot, Yearling, 2002.
Jehl, Douglas, "Rare Arizona Owl (All 7 Inches of It) is in Habitat Furor," in the New York Times, March 17, 2003, p. A1.
Magrs, Paul, "Saturday Review: Children's Books: Owl Trouble: Paul Magrs is Not Entirely Convinced by a Tale of Bullies, Beauty Queens and Fluffy Creatures," in the Guardian (London), February 22, 2003, p. 33.
Ott, Bill, Review of Hoot in Booklist, Vol. 99, No. 4, October 15, 2002, p. 405.
Pate, Nancy, "On Carl Hiaasen's New Children's Book," in the Orlando Sentinel, October 2, 2002.
Radosh, Daniel, "Picks & Pans," in People Weekly, Vol. 58, No. 12, September 16, 2002, p. 43.
Rohrlick, Paula, Review of Hoot in Kliatt, Vol. 36, No. 5, September 2002, p. 10.
"USFWS Threatened and Endangered Species System (TESS): Florida State Listing," U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, ecos.fws.gov (June 19, 2006).
Sibley, David Allen, The Sibley Guide to Birds, Knopf, 2000.
This reference guide, used by Roy Eberhardt and his father in Hoot, is considered one of the premier field guides available for American bird enthusiasts. It features thousands of illustrations to help birdwatchers identify over eight hundred species of birds found in North America.
Salmansohn, Pete, and Stephen W. Kress, Saving Birds: Heroes Around the World, Tilbury House Publishers, 2005.
This slim volume, produced with the blessings of the Audubon Society, introduces readers to six endangered bird species from around the world. It also tells readers about the efforts of the people who are working to bring these birds back from the brink of extinction.
Grunwald, Michael, The Swamp: The Everglades, Florida, and the Politics of Paradise, Simon & Schuster, 2006.
This nonfiction work is a comprehensive history of human land development in South Florida. It provides not only detailed information about the area's unique and fragile ecosystem, but also delves into the complex and powerful political forces that may well determine the region's ultimate fate, for better or for worse.