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Eugene is for the Birds

Local author launches young adult book

There are many reasons to read Eugene author Melissa Hart’s new young adult fiction book, Avenging the Owl, but the multiple references to Eugene life and Oregon culture are chief among them for local readers.

Tsunami Books will host a book launch for Hart on April 17, with readings from the winners of her middle-school nature essay contest.

Avenging the Owl features teenager Solo Hahn (yes, that’s a Star Wars reference), a SoCal surfer kid whose family abruptly transplants to a trailer in the woods of Oregon after his dad experiences a mental health crisis. Solo misses the warm beaches of his hometown, and after a tragedy involving a kitten and an owl, it gets worse — even though he hates birds, Solo is punished with community service at a raptor center.

Hart based the character of Solo on a high school student she knew while volunteering at the Cascades Raptor Center in Eugene. 

He started off surly, but Hart says she watched him “go from angry and hostile to entranced” as he fell in love with the center’s crow and raven. 

In the book, Solo is delightfully spiky in the great tradition of teenagers — pages are filled with his exasperation at his family’s new lifestyle, which includes tofu, a purple Volkswagen bus and a ban on sugar.

It’s not all adolescent angst, though, as Solo gets to know the birds he cares for and strikes up a friendship with his next door neighbor, Eric, who has Down syndrome and a love for nature.

“I wanted him to be just another character,” says Hart, whose brother has Down syndrome. Growing up, Hart says, her siblings didn’t treat her brother any differently.

The book treads deftly through complex topics like mental disability, depression and attempted suicide. Solo’s helplessness and frustration in the face of his dad’s mental illness is painful but relatable.

“These are real struggles that families face,” Hart says.

Avenging the Owl, while not explicitly set in Eugene, is rife with Eugene-like qualities, including the prominently featured Spencer Butte, as well as a beautiful strip of Oregon coast only an hour away and a raptor center in the hilly part of town — although Hart says that her book’s center is an amalgamation of raptor centers she and her family have visited over the years.   

Young adult fiction is “so much more fun” than the memoirs that she’s used to writing, Hart says. “It’s a lot less angsty to write, and I don’t have to get the facts just right. It’s all mine.”

Avenging the Owl delves heavily into appreciation for nature — John Muir quotes and all — which is why Hart decided to hold a nature writing contest in conjunction with the book’s launch.

“I just want kids to go outside,” she says. “It took a lot of work, but I’m so proud that my 9-year-old daughter says she wants to go tide-pooling or hiking on the weekend instead of sitting in front of the TV.”

She says she also wants to encourage young writers. “You don’t have to wait until you’re an adult to get published,” she says, citing her own childhood work as a poet for Cat Fancy. “You can start taking yourself seriously.”

Ten-year-old writer Mary McCoy won in her age group. She says her essay focuses on "how everything in nature has a story."

She says that writing "is so much more than putting words on paper. I dig up a feeling from inside, find a word for it and express it in a unique way."

Some of her favorite places in nature include Hendricks Park and the Oregon coast.

Owen McCoy, a 12-year-old contest winner and nature lover, says he enjoys seeing his work published, and he likes to share his thoughts with the world. In his essay, he explores the idea that “being in nature helps me organize my thoughts … I also appreciate the lack of noise.”

And what is his favorite spot in nature? “That’s a hard one,” he says. “Probably anywhere wild enough that my dad starts telling me to be careful.” 

Author Melissa Hart’s book launch is 3 to 6 pm Sunday, April 17, at Tsunami Books, 2585 Willamette Street, with nature nonprofits and readings from middle-school nature essay winners. The event is free.