Archive for Better Off Undead

“Sticks and Stones” in Honor of No Name-Calling Week (Yes, It’s a Thing)


This is no name-calling week (and yes, click the link, learn how your school can participate, and you can even buy the pencils!). And in honor of this week’s theme, I’d like to share the second-shortest chapter in my most recent book, Better Off Undead. The shortest, by the way, is only one word; try to beat that.

To set the scene, Adrian, a zombie, is having a hard time adjusting to middle school life. He begins the book as more or less the ultimate outsider, being the only zombie officially registered at Nixon Middle School, where they clearly had never heard of “No Name-Calling Week.” A real shame. Here on pages 47-48, Adrian reflects on some of the names he’s been called . . . 


Let’s list the names:

I am shuffler, ankle-dragger, shape-shifter, howler, freak. I am living dead, soulless corpse, brain-sucker, crawler, spitter, wraith, wuss, dumb butt, flailer, mutant, hant. I am gorgon, raver, basilisk, shambling undead, moaner, groaner, ghoul, death talker, puke machine, shade, half-life, cadaver, wailer, flailer, biter, roamer, feeder, lurcher, loser, infected fleshbag, vermin, oddball, slob, dipstick, drooler, death rattler, human fail. 

I am other, alien, outcast, misfit, and I live in your town. 

I am zombie, and names will never hurt me.

But inside, I’m a flower rising up through a crack in the sidewalk. I’m a hawk riding the upswells of wind, an athlete leaping hurdles, heart pumping, blood pulsing . . . 

Inside, in the places that no one can see, I’m freaking amazing. 

RoboCop, Ronald Reagan, and How a 1984 Campaign Commercial Gets Reimagined in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

“This uproarious middle grade call to action
has considerable kid appeal
and a timely message.
A strong addition to school and public library collections.”
— School Library Journal.

One of the most enjoyable aspects about writing Better Off Undead was that it was set in the not-so-distant future. That was a first for me, and a revelation. A simple fact that turned everything in the book into social commentary. And at the same time, I felt inspired to include everything but the kitchen sink into my creative blender: climate change, makeover shows, train bombs, pollution, GMOs, school testing, zombies and bats and bees and whatever else hit my radar.

RoboCop-1987-PosterI was also inspired by the faux-commercials and sly asides throughout the original 1987 “RoboCop” movie directed by Paul Verhoeven and starring Peter Weller. It was a movie that satirized popular culture in all sorts of astute and clever ways. To cite one example: Instead of Battleship, the popular family game is called Nuke ‘Em! Ha-ha. The movie does a terrific job skewering corporate greed and immorality. The corporate machine just wants to be a machine; it doesn’t care about sunsets or art or, you know, us. (It might serve us, but it won’t ever care.)

This is one of the powerful aspects of science fiction. The moment we begin to describe a future society, we automatically comment on the values and efficiencies of our current one. When characters sit on a bench and watch the evening sky for hologram advertisements (page 120, “Under a Hologram Sky,”) I’m saying something about the monetizing impulses of our world. And when I have young Dane watch a commercial on page 82 for “EarthFirst Gas Masks” — “Sleek and stylish and eighty percent more effective than ordinary surgical masks for protection against air pollution and other contagion!” — I’m taking articles I’ve read about pollution in China’s cities, with ordinary citizens walking around wearing surgical gas masks, and extending it into the future, broken world of my book. “That’s right, Vanna,” a gray-haired man chimes in. “These masks will keep you safe from airborne diseases like dengue fever and superflu and –“

And so on.

ScanThis sort of thing goes on throughout Better Off Undead. It’s a world gone wrong. How else explain a zombie, Adrian Lazarus, walking around in Nixon Middle School? (By the way, I did not realize until today that “RoboCop” included a reference to Lee Iacocca Elementary School. Nice, right? In the future our heroes will be corporate CEOs; “greed is good,” Gordon Gekko, and all that. What could possibly go wrong?)

When I created the evil corporation, K & K Corp, central to Adrian’s adventure, I naturally drew inspiration from the despicable Koch brothers. I tried to imagine how they might attempt to manipulate public opinion for personal profit and remembered a famous television commercial from the 1984 Presidential Election (I was fresh out of college and definitely paying attention). It was Ronald Reagan’s classic “It’s Morning Again in America” commercial that proved so effective for his campaign. Could have been titled, “It’s all good!”




Anyway, here’s the scene at the end of Chapter 21, “Talal Clues Me In”:

Dane was taking a bath when I got home. My mother was on the computer. I clicked on the television. A commercial came on. I’d probably seen it a hundred times before, but this time I noticed the names at the end of it.

The commercial flashed a series of short film clips, each more beautiful than the next. A fishing boat leaves a harbor, a man in a business suit gets into a cab, a rugged farmer drives a big-wheeled tractor, a cowboy saddles up, a car and a moving van pull into the driveway of a huge home, a teary-eyed grandmother watches a wedding scene in church, various citizens hoist American flags up flagpoles, rows of smiling children look up in wonder, a proud eagle soars across the sky. Final image: a logo on the side of a huge glass-and-steel building for K & K Corp.

NOTE: I have to interrupt here to point out that the paragraph above and immediately below is a fairly accurate description of the 1984 commercial. I watched it and wrote. And also, yes, of course, flags and jobs and weddings and boats and farmers and grandmothers are all good things. It’s just, you know, exponentially manipulative. And super white, by the way. Anway, back to our excerpt:

While all those images floated past, a man’s voice spoke in soothing tones. The words scrolled across the screen in block letters as he spoke:








{FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400In smaller print, it read: THIS HAD BEEN A PAID ADVERTISEMENT BY K & K CORP.

“That’s some frown, Adrian,” my mother said. She had joined me in the kitchen and was poking around in the refrigerator. “What’s bothering you?”

“Huh? What?” I replied. “Nothing. I’m fine. I was watching that commercial and –“

“Don’t you love it?” my mother said while slicing into a giant, perfectly pink, wonderfully round, genetically engineered grapefruit. “I see that commercial every day, and every day it makes me smile.”

I made an effort to smile right along with her.

“Be happy. Relax. Smile,” my mother repeated. “Those are words to live by!”

I didn’t answer. Instead, I wondered why K & K Corporation was spending millions of dollars on commercials to brainwash us all.

They didn’t want us to worry.

Because of course they didn’t.

Everything was fine.

Be happy. Relax. Smile.


For reference, here is the full text of the original commercial, which I encourage you to watch by clicking here:

“It’s morning again in America. Today more men and women will go to work than ever before in our country’s history. With interest rates at about half the record highs of 1980, nearly 2,000 families today will buy new homes, more than at any time in the past four years. This afternoon 6,500 young men and women will be married, and with inflation at less than half of what it was just four years ago, they can look forward with confidence to the future. It’s morning again in America, and under the leadership of President Reagan, our country is prouder and stronger and better. Why would we ever want to return to where we were less than four short years ago?”

Thanks for stopping by. I hope you check out the book. 

Here’s the full review from Booklist . . .

star-512“The author sets his tale in a near-future world in which climate change and pandemics are wreaking odd paranormal phenomena as well as predictable havoc. Having inexplicably survived a fatal hit-and-run accident over the summer, aptly named Adrian Lazarus is off to seventh grade, sporting a hoodie to hide his increasing facial disfigurement and lunching on formaldehyde smoothies to keep himself together. Simultaneously resenting and yet understanding the varied reactions of his schoolmates—which range from shunning to all-too-close attention from a particularly persistent bully—Adrian is also surprised and pleased to discover that he has allies, notably Gia Demeter, a new girl with a peculiar ability to foretell certain events. Preller might have played this as a light comedy (and there are some hilarious bits), but he goes instead for darker inflections. Even as Adrian sees himself becoming ominously aggressive (while developing tastes for roadkill and raw meat), his discovery that fabulously powerful data miners Kalvin and Kristoff Bork are ruthlessly scheming to put him under the knife in search of the secret to his longevity cranks the suspense up another notch. Nonetheless, in a series of splendidly lurid exploits, Adrian beats the odds as he fights for a well-earned happy ending.” — Booklist, Starred Review


How There’s a Touch of “M.A.S.H.” in My Book, BETTER OFF UNDEAD


My parents rarely took the whole family to movies. In fact, they rarely took themselves. Money was tight and with seven children covering a twelve-year span, a night at the movies was an expensive, unrealistic outing. However, I do recall a few family outings to the theater and can still name each movie: “The Immigrants” with Liv Ullman (I was too young and bored out of my mind), “Little Big Man” with Dustin Hoffman (politically incorrect but I love it to this day), “The Godfather,” “Frenzy” (Hitchcock!), and “M.A.S.H.” And that’s it, the sum total of all the films I saw with my parents in the theater.

In particular, Robert Altman’s “M.A.S.H.” stuck with me — it felt wild and irreverant — and then the popular television series further reinforced its influence on me. Without consciously thinking of the source, I borrowed a technique from the movie for my middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead.


I am thinking of the absurdist, omniscient P.A. announcements sprinkled throughout the film and, later, the series. What a brilliant device for satire and social comment. And not only that idea, but visually the way Altman fixed the camera on speaker. No reaction shots from beloved characters. We don’t even know the source of the voice who gives the announcements; it’s as if the words had fallen from the skies.


And on and on it goes. Here’s a great source for announcements from the television series. Please check it out, I’m sure you’ll find some favorites.


For my part, I believe young people experience this absurdity in a unique way each school day. Suddenly the voice blares on, interrupting whatever might be happening at any time during the day. I decided to feature the school principal in this manner. For example, the “Morning Announcements” chapter that begins on page 104:

On top of everything else, our principal was losing his mind. Maybe it was the job, I don’t know. There were days when our school felt like a madhouse — and the students weren’t the loony ones. Take today’s morning announcements for example, which began as usual with an ear-splitting buzz:

Kkccchh. “Is this on?” Kkccchh. Tap-tap, TAP-TAP. “Miss Shen? Is this thing” — whirr — “hey-ho, ouch! — What the . . . ? Good mooooorningggg, Nixon Middle School! This is your principal, Mr. Rouster!”

pa-speakersFrom my seat in the back corner of my homeroom class, I watched as everyone turned to the loudspeaker in listless silence.

The substitute teacher, Mrs. Perez, never looked up from her smartphone. Principal Rouster crowed. “All righty, then! I’ve got some good news, some bad news, and some really bad news. First, the good news! Our school recently received a large federal grant involving enormous sums of taxpayers’ money. I’m please to announce that there will be construction going on throughout the school. You may be inconvenienced by the occasional disruption.”

On cue, a series of loud noises — banging, chiseling, and the vibrating cacophony of a jackhammer — erupted out in the hallway. Next came a calamitous crash, a thud, and a muffled “Oops.”

Principal Rouster chattered on in a nasal voice, unruffled. “The bad news is that the construction will cause changes to our normal schedule. Until further notice, the cafeteria will be moved to the gymnasium. But P.E. will go on as scheduled. Just don’t confuse the meatballs with the dodgeballs! Heh-heh. The Choir Club will share a room with the Chess Club; they will both meet in the science lab. On Tuesday we’ll follow the Wednesday schedule, except for band members, who will adhere to their Thursday schedules — but only on Mondays. Lastly, the literacy center will be closed because of the asbestos problem recently brought to our attention by Janitor McConnell’s alarming rash. Get better soon, Mike!”

The girl next to me, Desiree Reynolds, muttered, “I wonder what the really bad news is.”

Principal Rouster continued, “The really bad news is that all bathroom privileges have been temporarily suspended. This should last only a few hours. In case of emergency, a temporary porta-potty has been set up in the mail hallway. I don’t have to tell you that with seven hundred students in the school, we’ll require a high level of cooperation and an almost Zen-like self-control of your bodily functions. Please avoid all liquids, and I strongly suggest that you tread lightly on today’s lunch special, the New Orleans gumbo. That stuff runs right through you.

“Thank you and happy learning!” 

I had originally intended to do more of this kind of thing throughout the book, but over time I felt it interrupted the pace of the story. I decided that a little bit would go a long way. That was my hope anyway! Here’s another quick bit, later in the book:

On Friday, the day of the “Halloween Fandango” — don’t look at me, I don’t name these things — Principal Rouster made another major announcement:

Kkkccchh. Kkkccchh. Tap-tap. TAP-TAP — SQUAAAWWWKKK. “Good afternoon, Nixon Middle School! Due to the recent discovery of toxic mold in various locations around the school, the Department of Health has temporarily shut down gymnasium B, our proposed setting for tonight’s Halloween Fandango! < snip > Not to worry! We’ve moved the dance to . . . THE PIT!”

Churlish screams, anguished cries, and wails of despair filled the room. “Not the pit, anything but the pit!” Desiree Reynolds moaned. 

“It smells like stale cheese!” groaned Arnie Chang.

“I got sick in the pit last year,” little Jessica Timmons confessed in her tiny voice, “and they still haven’t mopped it up.”



Oh, one final note of appreciation. At the end of the film, in a truly meta moment, the PA announcement is used to break through the fourth wall. It closes with this message:

“Tonight’s movie has been M*A*S*H.”


Better Off Undead: It’s Available at Last!


Today is publication day for my middle-grade novel, BETTER OFF UNDEAD (grades 4-7). The reviews have been kind: “Hilarious . . . splendidly lurid,” Booklist, starred review. “This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message,” School LIbrary Journal. “Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale . . . Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers,” Bulletin for the Center of Children’s Books. “A message of empowerment and acceptance,” Publishers Weekly.

Ask for it at your local independent bookstore, your library, or wherever you prefer to buy books. In today’s cluttered world, the best thing you can do is to share the good news. If you like the book, please tell a friend, write a review on Amazon, say something nice on GoodReads, shout it from the mountain tops. Thank you for your support. This is a hard business and books so easily get lost in the wilderness.

Click here to read an excerpt.

The Koch Brothers, The Wizard of Oz, and the “Data Collectors” in BETTER OFF UNDEAD

The Koch brothers were my initial inspiration for the evil billionaires in my new middle-grade novel, Better Off Undead (Macmillan, 10/31/17). I simply thought of the worst people I could possibly imagine and there they appeared in my daily news feed, a pair of oligarchs lusting for power. It didn’t {FE179E59-DB84-4875-A683-EAA5722C0587}Img400take a huge leap of the imagination from there. To me, the Koch brothers represent the most dangerous qualities of corporate greed and excess, using their unfathomable wealth to undermine the ideals of American democracy by pouring hundreds of millions of dollars into elections, buying political favor, and influencing policy for their own personal gain.

But my book characters, the Borks, are not merely stand-ins for the Koch brothers. There are other troubling forces in the world today. While the Koch brothers made their fortune from fossil fuels, I took a tip from the social media and decided to turn the Borks into “data collectors.” I’d been thinking a lot over the past few years about privacy issues, the monetization of the world wide web, and all those unwitting people (myself included) staring at phones: clicking, scanning, scrolling, flicking, giving it all away.

In this week’s New Yorker, Adam Davidson, writing about the Internet of Things, turned his focus to Amazon. I found these words remarkably similar to a speech I gave to Kristoff Bork in Better Off Undead (see below). Here’s Davidson:

For most of its existence, Amazon has made little or no profit. In the early days, it was often ridiculed for this, but the company’s managers and investors quickly realized that its most valuable asset was not individual sales but data — its knowledge about its loyal, habit-driven customer base. Amazon doesn’t evaluate customers by the last purchase they made; instead, customers have a lifetime value, a prediction of how much money each one will spend in the years to come. Amazon can calculate this with increasing accuracy. Already, it likely knows which books you read, which movies you watch, what data you store, and what food you eat. And since the introduction of Alexa, the voice-operated device, Amazon has been learning when some customers wake up, go to work, listen to the news, play with their kids, and go to sleep.

Now here’s a snippet from a scene when Adrian first meets the sickly, sinister Bork brothers. The book loosely models its structure on The Wizard of Oz, so think of this scene as the first time Dorothy, Lion, Scarecrow, and Tin Man meet the great and powerful Oz. (And, yes, that’s a little bit of Faulkner there are at the end.) Adrian speaks with the loudly amplified brothers via a huge television screen.


Kalvin fell into a spasm of coughing. His head flopped and lolled from side to side. Kristoff seemed to lean away from his brother, repulsed, a look of disgust on his face. Then his eyes returned to me, the way a sharpshooter zeroes in on a target.

“Have you any idea what we do, boy? How we made our billions?” Kristoff didn’t wait for my answer. “I’ll tell you. We collect flashes of light, waves on computer screens, whispers in the dark corridors of the Internet — clicks, likes, comments, purchases, page views — in sum, we gather your digital footprint. But not only yours, Adrian. Don’t think you are so special, boy.”

I stiffened. “Don’t call me boy.”

Kristoff’s lip curled. “Words, only words. But very well, Adrian. As you wish. We own the data. Like farmers, we reap what you sow. Then we sort and organize and sell in algorithms that are beyond your meager comprehension. In the end, we already own you — you’ve been bought and sold like a piece of meat.”

“I’m free,” I answered.

“Free? Oh, nonsense.” Kristoff chuckled.

“You don’t own me,” I countered.

Kristoff smiled ruefully, as if conceding the point. “We own only the digital footprint you so freely give away. Adrian, if you post a photo, we have a copy. If you send a text, we capture that, too, like a butterfly in our net.”

“That’s illegal. It’s private,” I said, surprised by my own anger.

“All your data points are known!” Kristoff’s voice now rose in volume and venom. “To the world, you are only digital code, lines of ones and zeros signifying nothing. We’ve been where you’ve clicked, we’ve watched when you’ve blinked. We know what you buy, what you wear, and even what you secretly desire — often before you yourself are aware of it.

“There are no secrets from the data collectors.”