Scat by Carl Hiaasen

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Scat by Carl Hiaasen

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Category: Teens
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Linda Lawlor
Reviewed by Linda Lawlor
Summary: It's bad enough that Nick's teacher has disappeared while on a field trip to the Florida Everglades. But when you add to the mix a corrupt oil prospector, an angry classmate who seems to enjoy arson, an injured father and a panther at risk, then life gets really complicated.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 368 Date: September 2010
Publisher: Orion Children's Books
ISBN: 978-1444000597

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Nick and his friend Marta are ordinary kids. They don't look for trouble, and they don't cause it. But when an unpopular teacher punishes a difficult classmate by making him write an essay about his pimples, then trouble can't be far away. The teacher goes missing during a wildfire, and Duane (nicknamed Smoke, because he has a reputation for setting fires) gets the blame. But the evidence doesn't add up, and our young heroes decide it's up to them to discover the truth.

You can't help but like Nick. He puts up with his best friend's constant anxieties without complaint, and looks after his mum while his dad is away in Iraq. And when he hears that his father has lost his right arm in an explosion, he immediately binds up his own arm despite the difficulties and discomfort this causes him, so he can support and encourage his father during rehab. He's just the kind of lad you'd like in your class, or as a neighbour. Or, better still, as a son.

The book is set in Florida, and like Carl Hiaasen's other two books for young people, Flush (about sewage) and Hoot (about owls) deals with topical environmental issues. We see adults who are happy to destroy the delicate ecological balance there in return for profit, and kids who are determined to stop them. Put like that it all sounds a bit serious and worthy, but don't let that put you off. Hiaasen is clearly outraged at the devastation caused to his small corner of the world in the name of the mighty dollar, but each book contains a generous dollop of comedy and very little overt preaching. Black Vine Swamp, where the action is set, is divided into sections: a few are available for oil prospectors, but for the most part it is protected land. One of the creatures living there is the Florida panther: in real life as in the book there remain fewer than a hundred of them in the wild. But the bad guys have discovered there is oil on the protected land, and they set about frightening away the panthers and the humans so they can drill for it. Nick and Marta find themselves part of a group of very unlikely allies as they get drawn into the battle to protect the wildlife, and defeat the oilmen.

Oilmen are not the only targets for satire in this book: Nick's bewilderment over the causes of the war in Iraq is not laboured, but it is heartfelt. And many educationalists will recognise the pushy parents at Nick and Marta's school, who constantly harass the head teacher to insist that their pleasant but academically ordinary son is in fact a misunderstood genius. The pudding is over-egged once or twice (it is unlikely that the inadequate substitute teacher would be allowed to cross the street alone, never mind take a class) and Nick sustains an all-too-conveniently-meaningful injury. But that apart, this book will bring much pleasure to its readers. The charming drawings of plants and animals (plus a pencil and a baseball glove – you'll have to read the book!) which appear on some pages are collected at the back, fully labelled for the budding naturalist.

It is difficult to decide which age group this book would be most appropriate for. Nick and Marta are young enough to be friends without any particular sexual tension, but a classmate who is only a couple of years older drives a van. The story deals with issues like the devastation of a broken marriage from an adult's perspective, but there is no unnecessary violence in the story: people are not shot (apart from once, and that more or less by accident), and the activist trying to scare away the prospectors resorts to stripping them naked and gluing them to trees, or painting them bright orange rather than causing real bodily harm. The vocabulary in the book is challenging, and the themes are presented in a very mature, yet innocent, way: Scat should be perfectly accessible to any sensible, thoughtful ten-year-old.

I'd like to thank the publishers for sending a copy to The Bookbag.

Further reading suggestion: Another eco-story readers may enjoy is The Highest Tide by Jim Lynch. Or if it's information about ecological matters you want, you could try Gaia Warriors by Nicola Davies.

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