Written by Sean Taylor
Illustrated by Jean Jullien
(Candlewick Press; $15.99, Ages 3-7)
★Starred Review – Kirkus Reviews
I love larger-than-life characters who never let defeat get in their way. I think of Inspector Clouseau in the Pink Panther series; there’s also the self-proclaimed genius Wile E. Coyote whose only success is consistently failing to catch his adversary. No matter how many times they fail or get rejected, these characters’ shameless ineptitude has us laughing clearly at, not with, them.
Hoot Owl: Master of Disguise uses this larger-than-life character trait in the loveable Hoot Owl who invites us to laugh right along with him. Hoot Owl’s flair for overly dramatizing his predatory skills consistently botches his ability to catch any real dinner. Even before the dedication page, we feel the suspenseful tone build up in the warning posted on page 1: “Watch out! I am Hoot Owl! I am hungry. And here I come!” In his first picture book for children, Jullien, of course, eases the hearts of even the youngest reader. Hoot Owl’s egg shaped head and wide eyes peeking from the bottom corner of the page assure us no animals (illustrated or otherwise) were harmed in the making of this book.
Especially appealing in this character driven story are the similes Hoot Owl uses to describe his supposed deftness at flying through the “darkness of midnight…as quick as a shooting star…like a wolf in the air…like a knife.” On his first attempt to catch dinner, Hoot Owl boasts of the “sharp beak” that will soon “gobbl[e] that rabbit up!” But Hoot Owl isn’t just any old owl; he is an owl of great mental prowess too. Before he closes in for the kill, he states: “Everyone knows owls are wise. But as well as being wise, I am a master of disguise.” And so our hero disguises himself as a (not-so-convincing) carrot. The bunny’s calm smile confirms our suspicions that Hoot Owl is more likely to win an Academy Award for Best Performance Before Dinnertime than to actually catch anything to eat. The adorably bespectacled “juicy little lamb” and mellow “trembling” pigeon are next on our predator’s supposed hit list, highlighting once more the comic disconnect between Taylor’s sensational diction and Jullien’s heartwarming illustrations.
That Hoot Owl shares with us he’s in on this comedy, too, is what I find most endearing about his character. “The shadowy night stretches away forever, as black as burnt toast,” he says using a simile so forced you know deep down he’s laughing at his own incompetence. Adults and children will be pleased and surprised at the dinner our hero finally does catch—then back again into the “enormousness of the night” Hoot Owl glides stealthily, warning us of his return….which readers of all ages will, without a doubt, impatiently await.
– Reviewed by Armineh Manookian