Hoot opens as Roy Eberhardt is bullied on the bus on his way to middle school in Florida. He has been having trouble making friends since moving there from Montana, and it does not help that he has been targeted by the large and unsavory Dana Matherson, who spends much of his time tormenting the newcomer: calling him “cowgirl,” teasing him, and trying to start fights. This time, he manages to get his hand around Roy’s head and squeezes, tighter and tighter, taunting Roy to beg for mercy. Because Roy’s head is smashed against the bus window, Roy notices a boy his age running alongside the bus. The boy is running incredibly quickly—and without any shoes. Roy is fascinated as he watches the boy sprint away; his curiosity is piqued. Who is this kid? Why is he not in school or getting on the bus? Where is he running? Why is he running so fast? Why is he not wearing shoes? As Dana releases Roy’s head, Roy vows to figure out who the running boy is.
A few days later, Roy notices the boy run past the bus again, but Dana grabs him as he tries to dash out in pursuit. Desperate to get off the bus and follow the mysterious boy, Roy delivers a strong punch to Dana’s face and takes off. He runs for a long time, following the boy through neighborhoods and parking lots and finally across a golf course, where he is hit in the head with a golf ball, which halts his chase. Later in the week, Roy returns to the golf course and forges into the woods where he saw the bare-footed boy run. He discovers a campsite that is obviously inhabited, but no one is there. As Roy explores the area, he upsets a bag that is filled with dozens of cottonmouth snakes, which are very poisonous; the odd thing about them is that the tips of their tails are covered in sparkly paint. A voice behind him tells him to freeze and walk backward; before he knows it, the running boy snags Roy and covers his face with a hood. The running boy marches Roy out of the forest and then disappears again.
The next day at school, Roy is accosted by Beatrice Leep, a girl in his grade who is on the soccer team. She grills him about what he was doing following the running boy, and she tells Roy to stay away from him or she’ll beat him up. This only makes Roy more curious. That afternoon, he grabs some sneakers from his house to give to the boy and rides off on his bike, anxious to find him. Beatrice discovers him, though. Roy learns that the running boy, nicknamed “Mullet Fingers” for his uncanny ability to snatch mullet fish out of the water with his bare hands, is Breatrice’s step-brother. Mullet Fingers has escaped from a boarding school and is hiding out because he does not want to go back to his house; his mother is less than pleasant and they don’t get along. Beatrice promised to keep Mullet Fingers’s secret and not turn him into their parents, police, or school authorities. Roy makes the same promise. These three form an unusual and touching friendship. Beatrice was tough to Roy at first, but it was to protect her brother’s secrecy; later she defends Roy from further attacks by Dana Matherson.
This tale is intercut with the story of an empty plot of land that is soon to feature a Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House. The site has been surveyed...
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and is ready for bulldozing; however, strange things keep happening. Curly, the gruff foreman of the site, is frustrated and calls the police. Officer Delinko, a police officer with aspirations to be a detective, arrives at the site and hears the story. The survey stakes that mark the site keep getting removed and tossed in every direction. This is a strange form of vandalism, but without the survey stakes, bulldozing cannot commence. While there, Officer Delinko learns that there are tiny owls that live and have nests in burrows beneath the soil. The foreman admits that he’s supposed to pretend the burrowing owls are not there; when construction begins, all of them will be buried. The pranks at the site do not stop with the survey stakes. Later Curly discovers baby alligators in the outhouses and flat tires on the construction trucks. In addition, while staking out the site, Officer Delinko finds his patrol car windows spray painted black. Curly decides to take action and brings in guard dogs; however, the dogs are scared off by cottonmouth snakes that have curiously colored tails and mouths that are taped shut.
It becomes clear that Mullet Fingers is the culprit behind the pranks at the pancake house construction site. Roy learns of the owls that live there and joins Mullet Fingers’s crusade to stop the project from moving forward and destroying the owls. In a current-events presentation at school, Roy raises awareness of the plight of the owls, and he protests ground-breaking ceremony with many of his classmates. Mullet Fingers manages to shimmy down one of the owl holes and refuses to move even if they start the bulldozers. Roy and his classmates link arms around the boy and refuse to move. The manager of the pancake house is not convinced and claims that no owls live on the site at all. However, as he tells the machines to start digging, one of the owls flies overhead and lands on Mullet Fingers’s head. It is discovered that the pancake company had illegally chosen the site; they were never given the permit to build because the owls, a protected species, lived there. The scandal is huge, and Mother Paula’s All-American Pancake House leaves the site—and the owls—in peace.