Solo Hahn is uprooted from his friends and favorite pastime—surfing—when his family abruptly moves from the California coast to a trailer in the woods in Oregon. His best friend in Oregon (other than the Down syndrome neighbor boy) is his new kitten. When an owl kills the kitten, Solo tries to shoot the owl, earning himself the label of “at-risk youth” and eight weeks of community service at the local raptor center.
Avenging the Owl (2016) is author Melissa Hart’s middle-grade debut. I’m delighted she has agreed to chat with the Booktalk Blog about her experiences writing this book.
Much of Solo’s story takes place at a raptor rehabilitation center, a fairly unusual setting for a middle-grade novel. What drew you to this setting for a kids’ book?
MH: I volunteered at my local raptor rehabilitation center for eight years, and I found the setting fascinating. This particular center is set in a forest of Douglas firs, and there are bald eagles and great horned owls and peregrine falcons just hanging out on perches in their mews among the trees. Kids and adults alike find this setting fascinating when they visit. These rehabilitation centers exist all over the world, and it was fun to bring mine to life for young readers.
One of the book’s important characters is Eric, the neighbor boy with Down syndrome. When other boys taunt Eric for being a “retard,” Solo and Eric both respond in different ways—and their responses change over the course of the book. How did you develop the character of Eric? Did you have a sense of what his role in the story would be from the beginning?
MH: Eric is based on my younger brother, Mark. I knew right away that he would share my brother’s own intelligence and enthusiasm for life, as well as his sense of humor. Eric’s love of insects is all his own, but his reaction to being called a “retard” is definitely based on my brother’s own changing reaction to this word as he grew up. Eventually, Eric addresses the bullies in a very direct way. No spoilers, but his actions in that scene are inspired by an incident that took place between my brother and a bully at the local Boys and Girls Club years ago.
Your previous two books were both memoirs written for adults. What was it like to move into writing for kids? Were there challenges you weren’t expecting?
MH: I actually started out writing for kids. I adore young adult literature—right now, my 10-year old daughter and I are reading and discussing George, by Alex Gino. But I didn’t have any luck with my two early YA manuscripts, and so I wrote Gringa—a memoir I’ve always thought of as best suited to young adults. The big challenge I found in writing Avenging the Owl lay in trying to impart really cool information about birds of prey without being didactic. I ended up giving the most wonky lines to Lucas (aka, Professor Bird Nerd), a character based on my husband who’s the whole reason I started volunteering with raptors in the first place. He adores birds!
And how did writing fiction compare to memoir? Did you find your writing process was different?
MH: Both genres are heavily dependent on scene and sensory details. I actually prefer writing fiction, however, because I love sitting down early in the morning before I’m completely awake and letting the story tell me where it wants to go. To get to live in that fictional world—there’s nothing like it. It’s not quite as thrilling to craft memoir about one’s own life . . . there are fewer surprises, for sure. I tend to plan out memoir, chapter by chapter, where with fiction, I just start from page one and see what happens! Of course, what happens is five or six drafts over a year or so. I revise a lot.
Were there any surprises in writing Avenging the Owl?
MH: I wouldn’t say there were surprising in writing Avenging the Owl, but it’s always gratifying and rather surprising to meet a reader who “gets” all the Star Wars references in the novel and—separately—adores birds of prey. I met a 12-year old reader at the library last week who knows more about owls than I’ll ever know. That’s surprising and wonderful.
Nature is a healing force in your book. What are your own favorite ways of getting out in nature?
MH: If I could, I’d be outside all the time. I love to hike and run and kayak and camp and just sit and observe. We have a big backyard with chickens and a vegetable garden and fruit trees—when it’s not raining, it’s heaven. Actually, even when it is raining, it’s heaven . . . a very muddy heaven.