Carl Hiaasen’s Hoot Inspires Kids to Fight For Causes They Believe In

An unforgettable story about pursuing justice with reckless abandon in the face of overwhelming odds.

The cover of Hoot by Carl Hiaasen

“Go to the edge of the cliff and jump off,” Ray Bradbury once said in an interview. “Build your wings on the way down.” That bold advice could serve as an apt metaphor for Hoot (public library), Carl Hiaasen’s novel for young adults. It’s a hilarious coming of age story, and a rollercoaster of a ride that readers won’t soon forget.

The story centers around the burrowing owl, an endangered species that happens to live on a plot of land that’s soon to become a construction site. A popular pancake chain is preparing to break ground and start building its 469th restaurant on that very spot in Coconut Cove, Florida. The story’s young heroes — Roy, Beatrice, and Beatrice’s step-brother, a homeless boy known as “Mullet Fingers” — work together to stop the construction and save the owls.

Combining all the hallmarks of modern society together with elegance and humor, Hiaasen’s book is a masterpiece that keeps readers in suspense to the end. It’s all here — corporate greed and corruption, environmental destruction, teenage malaise, boneheaded bullies, and ecoterrorism.

At its core, Hoot is a story about middle school students standing up for what they believe in. In the face of overwhelming odds and paralyzing moral dilemmas, the story’s heroes stay true to their hearts. They pursue justice with reckless abandon, doing whatever it takes to achieve their goal. The heroes lie to authority figures, vandalize construction equipment, evade police officers, and entrap bullies.

Burrowing Owl in Florida
A burrowing owl (Photograph: Bryan Jones)

The entire book is — dare we say — antithetical to societal values. That’s not a bad thing. Saving owls is a noble cause, and Hiaasen’s style brings comic relief to issues that aren’t a laughing matter. Readers will find themselves empathizing and even identifying with the characters. You can’t help rooting for them. The narrative is enthralling; the heroes’ cunning plans and illicit actions are downright exhilarating.

The character known as Mullet Fingers — so named because he can catch a mullet fish with his bare hands — has lived in Florida his entire life, and he’s sick of watching it disappear.

‘Ever since I was little,’ Mullet Fingers said, ‘I’ve been watchin’ this place disappear — the piney woods, the scrub, the creeks, the glades. Even the beaches, man — they put up all these giant hotels and only goober tourists are allowed. It really sucks.’

Roy said, ‘Same thing happens everywhere.’

‘Doesn’t mean you don’t fight back.’

And fight back they do. From flattening the tires of a flatbed truck to notifying reporters that the environmental impact statement is missing from the city’s records, the underdog heroes pull out all the stops to halt construction. They declare all-out war against the overwhelming forces of capitalism that have converged on the tiny plot in Coconut Cove.

Florida's everglades
Florida’s everglades (Photograph: Jesse Michael Nix)

But the characters also hit some moral conundrums along the way. For Roy especially, the war between his heart and mind never seems to stop. He wants to save the owls, but he doesn’t want to resort to vandalism to do it. The careful dilberations between right and wrong are some of the best parts of the story. Eventually, Roy finds a middle ground.

Roy sat cross-legged on the floor, gazing up at the cowboy poster from the Livingston rodeo. He wished he was as brave as a champion bull rider, but he wasn’t.

The Mother Paula’s mission was simply too risky; somebody, or something, would be waiting. The attack dogs might be gone, but the company wasn’t about to leave the new pancake-house location unguarded for long.

In addition to a fear of getting caught, Roy had serious qualms about trying anything illegal — and there was no dodging the fact that vandalism was a crime, however noble the cause.

Yet he couldn’t stop thinking ahead to the day when the owl dens would be destroyed by bulldozers. He could picture the mother owls and father owls, helplessly flying in circles while their babies were being smothered under tons of dirt.

It made Roy sad and angry. So what if Mother Paula’s had all the proper permits? Just because something was legal didn’t automatically make it right.

Roy still hadn’t settled the argument between his brain and his heart. Surely there had to be a way for him to help the birds — and Beatrice’s stepbrother — without breaking the law. He needed to come up with a plan.

Carl Hiaasen
Carl Hiaasen

In an interview with the Washington Post, Hiaasen said that he felt the same way as a young adult growing up in Florida.

When I was growing up in Florida, we felt as passionately as Roy and Noah of Hoot do. These are kids who see something wrong, and they’re trying to make it right, and they’re having a little trouble getting the grownups’ attention. This is often true in life! There are choices about which path to take, questions about what to do when you see something wrong. Do you stand and fight, or do you walk away? In both Hoot and Flush, the kids could have very easily turned their backs and walked away, said, ‘Oh, what the heck — there will be other owls somewhere else.’ Because, you know, when I was growing up, that’s what the grownups did. And now, there are very few owls left.

The dangers of doing nothing — of turning our backs and walking away from situations we know are wrong — are well understood by scientists and activists. As Jane Goodall told Time magazine, “the greatest danger to our future is apathy.” But there’s more at stake than just our future. As Thoreau noted in Civil Disobedience, tolerating injustice is bad for the soul:

How can a man be satisfied to entertain an opinion merely, and enjoy it? Is there any enjoyment in it, if his opinion is that he is aggrieved? If you are cheated out of a single dollar by your neighbor, you do not rest satisfied with knowing that you are cheated, or with saying that you are cheated, or even with petitioning him to pay you your due; but you take effectual steps at once to obtain the full amount, and see that you are never cheated again. Action from principle — the perception and the performance of right — changes things and relations; it is essentially revolutionary.

Thoreau’s comments may help explain why Hoot is such a hit among young adults. The book is a fictional embodiment of Thoreau’s message of civil disobedience and “action from principle.” It’s empowering for young people to see strong fictional characters fight back against perceived injustices.

Hoot is a hilarious, suspenseful novel that inspires young readers to stand up for the causes they believe in, environmental or otherwise. Complement with The Tripods series of science fiction books for young adults, then revisit I Am Jane Goodalla must-read book for kids concerned with the environment.

Introducing Kids to Science Fiction with John Christopher’s Tripods Series

First published nearly 50 years ago, The Tripods series remains one of the very best introductions to young adult science fiction literature.

Cover of The Tripods“Science fiction is the most important literature in the history of the world,” mused beloved author Ray Bradbury. “It’s the history of ideas, the history of our civilization birthing itself.” The deeply creative world of science fiction literature first becomes accessible to children when they turn nine or ten years old. The Tripods (public library) series of books by John Christopher is intensively captivating and easy to read — perfect for introducing kids ages 9-13 to science fiction.

The books center around the tripods — giant, sinister machines with three legs that rule the Earth. By installing a cap on each adult’s head, they’re able to control the entire human race through mind control. Everyone, that is, except for a small group of holdouts that quietly wage war on the tripods in the hopes that the planet will one day be free again. The renegades concentrate on recruiting preteens who haven’t yet been “capped” and who are open to new ideas. Kids create pockets of resistance in this world of brainwashed adults controlled by an evil alien force.

If the premise sounds rebellious and anti-authoritarian, that’s because it is. In an interview, author Sam Youd (whose pen name was John Christopher) suggested that the series appeals to pubescent readers precisely because they themselves view the world suspiciously.

I think the successful children’s books are those which appeal to something at a deeper level which the child doesn’t really quite work out. Now in The White Mountains, the whole thing is that at puberty people are brainwashed. The whole future of mankind rests in the hands of the young, the age group for which I’m writing. I think that kids at that age – around 12 or 13 – probably do look at the adults around them resentfully and think of them as hidebound and prejudiced. It’s important for children to have stories which put them in the driving seat.

The series is a collection of four books: When the Tripods Came (prequel — 1988), The White Mountains (1967), The City of Gold and Lead (1967), and The Pool of Fire (1968). Readers may want to start with the prequel since it lays the groundwork for the original series.

Covers of the White Mountains
Covers from different editions of The White Mountains

Individuality and free will are strong themes throughout the books. The capped adults have lost all traces of the personality traits that made them unique human beings. Their behavior is flat and tempered, something that terrifies the freethinking narrators of the books.

The Head Man droned on. He was thin and anxious, white-faced and white-haired (what there was of it), due for retirement at the end of the school year. I wondered about being like him, too — just about able to cope under normal conditions, without things like Tripping to contend with.

What I was suddenly aware of was the importance of their being whatever each of them was — cocky and contemptuous, or bothered and beaten — as long as it was something they’d come to in their own way: the importance of being human, in fact. The peace and harmony Uncle Ian and the others claimed to be handing out in fact was death, because without being yourself, an individual, you weren’t really alive.

Readers discover later in the series that the tripods are piloted by aliens who live in dome-covered cites. Soon after arriving on Earth and enslaving everyone, the alien species returned the human race to a preindustrial way of living — one entirely devoid of modern technology. The holdouts living in the mountains make plans to destroy the tripods and free the human race.

There are viewing points where one can look out from the side of the mountain. Sometimes I go to one of these and stare down into the green sunlit valley far below. I can see villages, tiny fields, roads, the pinhead specks of cattle. Life looks warm there, and easy compared with the harshness of rock and ice by which we are surrounded. But I do not envy the valley people their ease.

For it is not quite true to say that we have no luxuries. We have two: freedom, and hope. We live among men whose minds are their own, who do not accept the dominion of the Tripods and who, having endured in patience for long enough, are even now preparing to carry the war to the enemy.

It’s worth noting that the series has been rightfully criticised for its notable absence of female characters as well as some subtle racist references. As one Slate editor put it, “to have found that one of my favorite childhood books was sexist in this casual, negligent way was alarming.” But for parents and readers who can look past these shortcomings, The Tripods series provides nail-biting entertainment. This is science fiction at its best.

The Star Wars and Star Trek franchises get all the publicity, but readers willing to dig a little deeper will discover a treasure trove of wonderful science fiction literature for kids and young adults. First published nearly 50 years ago, The Tripods series has stood the test of time. It remains one of the very best introductions to the world of young adult science fiction literature. Complement with Hoot by Carl Hiaasen, a novel for young adults about middle school students standing up for what they believe in.