Raptors, Science, and Essence of Place: Avenging the Owl

Dr. Jessie Voigts's picture

Being a teen is hard. Being a teen with a series of life changes is even harder. One new YA book that explores this theme is Avenging the Owl, by Melissa Hart. But it's not only a book about life changes and growing up - it's also about raptors, and helping others, and the essence of place, and finding yourself. I loved this book for addressing these issues, but also because the writing is strong, clear, and makes you feel as if you were there, with Solo - at the beach, in the woods - trying his best to make sense of the new life he's been thrust into. 

Raptors, Science, and Essence of Place: Avenging the Owl

Author Melissa Hart is an advocate for raptors rehabilitation, and utilizes her experiences in working with them throughout the book. She's also a genius at writing about gaining understanding of ourselves through nature and wildlife, for positively showing that growth and change go hand in hand, and encouraging readers to help ourselves by helping others. I read many YA books - it's one of my favorite genres - and Avenging the Owl is one of my favorites. I love the setting in the woods, the characters, the science education spread throughout, the gentle understanding of a character with Down Syndrome, and the potential for change that Hart writes so beautifully. Highly recommended.

We were lucky enough to catch up with Melissa, and ask her about the book, inspiration, essence of place, raptor rehab, writing, and more. Here's what she had to say...

Author Melissa Hart. Raptors, Science, and Essence of Place: Avenging the Owl

Please tell us about your new book, Avenging the Owl...
Avenging the Owl, which Sky Pony Press published in April, is the story of 13-year old Solo Hahn who's forced to do community service at a local raptor rehabilitation center after he accidentally injures his disabled neighbor while trying to shoot a great horned owl that's attacked his kitten. It's a sentence all the more horrifying because of his fear of Alfred Hitchcock's horror movie, The Birds.

At the beginning of the novel, Solo's miserable and furious. His depressed father and his mother--who's suddenly turned into a hippie--make him leave his Redondo Beach home and move to a trailer in the middle of Oregon. He misses his home, his friends, and surfing desperately; it takes him months to realize that the animals and hiking trails in his new state, and his neighbor who has Down syndrome, are actually pretty cool. Even more shocking, he finds himself genuinely interested in helping the owls that previously terrified him. But once again, his father threatens to take everything away after he mysteriously disappears. 

What inspired you to write this book?
I volunteered at a raptor rehabilitation center for eight years with my husband, Jonathan. One summer, we worked a shift with an 18-year old boy who'd left his mandatory school community service until the last minute. The only place he could volunteer was the raptor center, and this guy hated birds. It was fascinating to see him, over three months, move from a place of resentment and disgust to enthusiasm and care for injured and orphaned raptors. In fact, he ended up liking his volunteer work so much that the next summer, he returned to help out! 

What might readers be surprised to learn, about raptor rehabilitation centers?
Readers may be surprised to learn that raptor rehabilitation centers--that is, centers that exist to help injured and orphaned birds of prey--exist all over the world. Definitely, there's one in most cities in the U.S. I list some in the back of Avenging the Owl, and you can find most of them at this website: http://wildliferehabinfo.org One other surprising thing is that many of these centers will allow kids over 12 to volunteer as long as they're accompanied by an adult. And kids younger than 12 can sometimes have their birthday party at the center and collect donations for the birds in lieu of gifts, or help raise money for the center through their school or scouting troops. There are so many ways to get involved, regardless of your age. 

Author Melissa Hart. Raptors, Science, and Essence of Place: Avenging the Owl

How did your background in working with raptors influence your writing?
I admit that when I first met my husband (at our local dog park, of all places!), I didn't even know what a raptor was. Like Solo, I was terrified of eagles, hawks, falcons, owls, and the rest. I thought they'd scalp me or bite me, and I put this fear and wonder into Avenging the Owl. I've also written several short essays about my volunteer work at our local raptor center. Here's one of my favorites, from the newspaper High Country News: https://www.hcn.org/issues/351/17156 

Your writing is so evocative of place...what do you suggest to travelers to really absorb the essence of place?
I love this question, because the answer is absolutely magical. To absorb the essence of place, we want to challenge ourselves to be fully present. That means put down our devices and really immerse ourselves in a setting. I ask myself, whenever possible, "What am I hearing, smelling, feeling, tasting, seeing?" That's an excellent way for writers, and anyone else, to learn to pay attention to their surroundings . . . it's also a pretty useful answer to depression. It's hard to focus on feeling sad or angry when all five of your senses are engaged in your environment. Of course, on my worst days, I simply engage all five of my senses in enjoying a pint of Ben and Jerry's Coffee Heath Bar Crunch. That works, too.  

What's up next for you?
I've just finished a YA manuscript titled The Absurd Animal. It's set in Costa Rica, about a surfer girl with an absentee mother who meets a mysterious boy in an abandoned hotel and goes with him on an unexpected adventure. I sent it to my agent; I'm waiting to hear from her whether it works as is, or whether I need to revise. Maybe it needs more monkeys . . . we'll see what she says.

Is there anything else you'd like to share?
There are so many magazines out there looking for writing from young people between the ages of 8-22. Here's a link to an article I wrote last year for The Writer Magazine, which offers profiles of young writers and magazine editors actively looking for submissions. There are other magazines, as well, including Skipping Stones--a multicultural magazine in my hometown of Eugene.  

I got my start as a professional writer when I was 16 years old. It's never too early to start taking yourself seriously, if that's the career you want. 


Learn more: http://www.melissahart.com/