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Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, 292 pp, RL 4

A native Floridian and journalist, Carl Hiaasen is known as a gifted satirist and his adult novels often classified as "environmental thrillers." In Hoot, his first novel for young adults, Hiaasen definitely delivers on the environmental themes and, appropriately, his satirical style is toned down a bit. Characters are caricatures, and potential thriller aspects are replaced with some slap-sticky type situations.

Roy Eberhardt is the only child of a stay at home mom and father who is a Federal Agent who moves his family often. Their last home in Montana was hard for Roy to leave and his adjustment to his new middle school is proving rough, mostly because an the over-sized thug named Dana Matherson who has decided to make Roy his target. Roy's first scrape with Dana, which results in near strangulation and a broken nose during the morning bus ride, coincides with his first glimpse of a mystery boy, tanned and agile, running barefoot through the houses and foliage on the side of the road. Intrigued, Roy seeks out the boy while avoiding Dana, both of which prove difficult. When Roy comes close to making a discovery, he is confronted by the school's soccer star, Beatrice Leep. Tall, powerful and with a head of curly blond hair, Beatrice cuts an imposing figure. She menaces Roy, but he doesn't back down. Eventually the two become friends, Beatrice rescuing Roy from Dana's grips more than once and recruiting him to help with the secret of the shoeless running boy.

This boy turns out to be Beatrice's younger stepbrother. An embarrassment and nuisance to his mother, she repeatedly ships him off to boarding school from which he promptly runs away. After the last school he returns to Coconut Cove, but not to his home, preferring to sleep in a rusted out ice cream truck in the local junkyard and the nearby everglades. Nicknamed Mullet Fingers because he can catch the silver, super fast fish with his bare fingers, Beatrice is keeping him secret and helping him out when she can. They entrust Roy with this secret but do not reveal the boy's real name to him, which proves to be a plus as the kids become embroiled in illegal activities - theirs and others. In an effort to protect burrowing owls living on a vacant lot about to be turned into a Mother Paula's Pancake house, Mullet Fingers has been committing acts of vandalism like placing baby alligators in the port-a-johns and letting deadly water moccasins loose on the property, albeit Mullet Fingers has taped their mouths shut before doing so. Mullet Fingers actions introduce the bumbling Officer Delinko and the brilliantly named corporate representative from Mother Paula's, Chuck Muckle, into the plot.

The climax is an exciting one and the emerging sense of environmental, community and social awareness that the characters - young and old - experience feels genuine. Hiaasen tells his story in a straightforward, reporter-like way that makes Hoot a great book for younger readers ready to bite into something a little longer than usual. As a girl, the bullying and violence from Dana Matherson were a little off putting. Fighting, even boys fighting, was not part of my childhood and is always a bit alien to me when I encounter it in books. However, I know it exists and Hiaasen does a good job of evening the odds between the bulky Matherson and the smaller Roy with the character of Beatrice. And, while Matherson helps to bring Roy and Beatrice, and ultimately Mullet Fingers, who's real name is Napoleon Bridgerm together, I'm not entirely sure that it is necessary to the plot. Even so, I think that Carl Hiaasen has opened up a new genre of young adult literature - subtle environmental themes within a real life/school setting and fascinating, realistic young characters. The movie Hoot came out in 2006 and, since the novel is so straightforward, I am sure that the adaptation was a good one. Though I have not seen it, I do plan to add it to my queue after enjoying the book.

Carl Hiaasen has written two other environmentally themed mystery/thrillers for kids. Flush, available in paperback, is about a casino boat that is dumping its raw sewage in the bay and a boy's fight to expose the owner after his father is jailed for trying to sink the boat. Scat, only in hardback at this time, is about an unlikable teacher who disappears during a school nature field trip, the kids who try to figure out what happened to her and the endangered panthers roaming the swamp...


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