Carl Hiaasen writes children’s books? was the first thought in my mind when a friend gifted me his novel HOOT. At the time, the only thing I knew of Carl Hiaasen was that he wrote crime fiction — specifically, according to his Wikipedia entry, “humorous crime fiction [which can] often feature themes of environmentalism and political corruption in his native Florida.”
In that regard, HOOT seems like a natural progression from adult to children’s fiction. Described as “an ecological mystery, made up of endangered miniature owls, the Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House scheduled to be built over their burrows, and the owls’ unlikely allies — three middle school kids determined to beat the screwed-up adult system,” Hiaasen’s first children’s novel earned a Newbury Honor in 2003 and was turned into a movie three years later.
Admittedly, I don’t read a lot of middle-grade fiction — though I should. The novels I’ve read are as enjoyable to adults as they are to kids, and HOOT is no exception. Hiaasen’s adult characters are as well realized as his child characters, evolving through their interactions. Officer David Delinko is bored with his beat-cop job; construction foreman Curly is at the mercy of bully corporate overlords and their dedication to brand and bottom line.
Their tribulations are mirrored in the kids’, showing that the adult world isn’t as far removed from childhood as many of us would like to believe. Main character Roy yearns for the back country of Montana, where he moved from; he’s different, attracting the attention of his own bully, Dana — as well as tough girl Beatrice.
Like all great kidlit, the book doesn’t shy from the tough things kids experience and how it shapes them. Both Dana and Beatrice have secrets they’re hiding, and Hiaasen masterfully shows how those secrets shape them and their actions.
HOOT’s appeal for adults as well as kids is important when you recognize its roadmap for “good trouble” (as Rep. John Lewis (D-GA) puts it). Each character’s activism is a function of their personality: one disrupts building operations through stealthy mischief-making, while others take a more vocal outspokenness.
(In fact, HOOT and its lessons are perhaps never more important when you read news articles like this one from Florida, where a rare forest is scheduled to be bulldozed to make way for — of all things — a Walmart.)
Throughout the story, simple empathy and willingness to observe (versus judge) lend context to the action. Perhaps most importantly of all, Roy learns to appreciate even the most unfamiliar wild place on its own terms — the foundation to all humane coexistence.
Be sure to read Hiaasen’s background Q&A regarding HOOT and his kidlit!