Mary QuattlebaumGive back to the Earth for Valentine’s Day. Organize a neighborhood clean-up for play spaces, parks, or trails.

Will your kids want to help? You bet. They might grouse about chores at home but set them loose in a park with gloves, big bags, and a few buddies and you’ll be amazed at what they accomplish.

As part of President Obama’s call to renew America, my family organized a neighborhood clean-up project last month–one of 13,000 service projects conducted across the United States on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. More than 100 people pitched in, many of them kids, teens, and college students. The result: a pristine city park, a mound of trash bags stuffed with bottle tops, litter, and broken glass–and a feeling of pride in a job well done.

As parents, we can sometimes try to make everything “fun” for our kids. We can sometimes underestimate their ability to take meaningful action and their desire to contribute to a larger cause.

Our kids often surprise us.

Carl Hiaasen celebrates this can-do spirit in his latest novel for young people. Scat (Random House, 2008, ages 8 to 12) joins Hiaasen’s other funny, monosyllabically titled novels, Hoot and Flush, to focus on an environmental issue. The young heroes this time are 11-year-old Nick and his friend, Marta. At stake are the endangered Florida panther and its ever-shrinking Everglades habitat.

When their biology teacher goes missing during a field trip to the Black Vine Swamp, Nick and Marta decide to investigate–and stumble upon an illegal oil-siphoning operation. Hiaasen, an acclaimed newspaper columnist and author of mysteries for adults, specializes in clever plot twists. His humor, though, comes from his wacky (but believable) minor characters, including a fellow classmate (and ex-arsonist), Duane “Smoke” Scrod, Jr., an eco-warrior named Twilly Spree, a macaw that speaks three languages, and a greedy oilman with a fake Texas accent.

Kids and adults alike will cheer on Nick, Marta and the Florida panther–and perhaps look outdoors for an issue to tackle or a park to clean up.

You might also look into ongoing service and volunteer projects at the Renew America Together website

Mary Quattlebaum is the author of 15 award-winning children’s books, including Jackson Jones and the Puddle of Thorns (Random House) and two chapter-book sequels, all set in a city community garden. Check for activities connected with Mary’s books.