Chomp by Carl Hiassen
Wahoo's family owns a wildlife refuge, full of all manner of beasties from pythons, to parrots, to a 13-foot alligator named Alice, the very animal responsible for Wahoo's missing thumb. After Wahoo's father, Mickey is struck on the head by a frozen Iguana, the family falls on hard times and in their desperation they agree to be animal handlers for Expedition, Survival!, a not-so-reality based show in which Derek Badger goes into the wild (or into Wahoo's backyard), fighting off all manner of dangerous creatures, or in this case, the rather docile Alice. Things turn bad though when Wahoo and his dad agree to go to the Everglades along with the TV crew and a girl named Tuna, whose abusive father is not far behind.
Having only read Hoot, which was rather light despite the environmental message, I think I was expecting something along those lines. I was pleasantly surprised by the depth of this novel, so much more than Hoot and yet still light enough for young readers. Wahoo, despite his wacky name, is a kid who has been forced to grow up quickly, taking on the role of manager while his mother is off in China and his father is still suffering from his iguana attack. Smart, witty, and quick thinking, Wahoo is the perfect foil for his speak-before-he-thinks father. Mickey, is a great complex adult character, the kind I rarely see in children's novels, albeit usually the adults are simply missing in middle grade books. Derek Badger is plenty the imbecile and once he gets to the real wild, the Everglades, his idiocy is ramped up to the point of bizarre...and it is wonderful. Tuna was the only character who I felt was a little unlikely, but Hiassen weaves her and her abusive father into the plot so deftly that I barely gave notice while reading.
After some research, I think this may be one of Hiassen's darker novels for young readers, but it was handled well and even though there were serious issues involving abuse and guns and such, Hiassen is careful to keep his intended audience in mind. That said, teachers and librarians should keep in mind that this novel has a bit more bite. Or Chomp.