Archive for Better Off Undead

Come to Warwick Children’s Book Festival on October 7th!

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Come to beautiful, cozy, friendly Warwick, NY, for a really nice afternoon with more than 60 authors and illustrators along with the assembled book-lovers.

“Companions of the flame!” as the poet H.D. wrote.

It’s a great scene and sends an important message to your children. We value books, reading is important, and it’s fun, too. We can’t spend our entire lives driving to soccer practice!

Time is 11:00 – 4:00.

On a personal note, yes, please say hello. I’ll have my new Jigsaw Jones books there, as well as — for the first time! — 10 advance copies of my brand new middle-grade novel, Better Off UndeadI’m so excited about this book and can’t wait for young people to read it.

Also: Ask me about school visits!

 

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CRITICAL PRAISE for

BETTER OFF UNDEAD!

Hilarious . . . splendidly lurid.” — Booklist, Starred Review.

“This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message.” School Library Journal.

“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.

Click Here for Free Teaching Guides: Jigsaw Jones, Better Off Undead, and The Courage Test

The good folks at Macmillan have worked hard to support teachers as they seek to effectively use books in the classroom. To that end, I’m grateful that they’ve produced a number of free teaching guides for my books. 

Just a click away.

Thought you might want to know.

 

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Available in paperback this October!

The Courage Test Teaching Guide

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Published in Hardcover on October 31st!

Better Off Undead Teaching Guide 

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Available in both hardcover and paperback!

Jigsaw Jones: Case from Outer Space Teaching Guide 

Oh, and before you go . . .

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You can click here for a special combo Teaching Guide for Bystander and The Fall. Two for the price of nothing!

Wow, Another Great Review for BETTER OFF UNDEAD

This is from the Bulletin of the Center for Children’s Books, and I’m glad to share it. This is a sprawling kind of “everything but the kitchen sink” book, difficult the summarize, and this reviewer did a fine job. 

I should also add that as an author, I am relieved to read a review that doesn’t attempt to state the so-called “message” of the book. It’s a common practice and always irksome. Thank you, QB, whoever you are!

 

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BCCB utilizes a coding system consisting of * (starred reviews); R (Recommended); Ad (Additional book of acceptable quality for collections needing more material in the area); and M (Marginal book that is so slight in content or has so many weaknesses in style or format that it should be given careful consideration before purchase.)

 
BETTER OFF UNDEAD 
Author: James Preller

Publisher: Feiwel & Friends
Pages: 288
Price (Hardcover): $16.99
Publication Date: October 2017
ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250066480
R
Death hasn’t kept Adrian Lazarus from worrying about surviving seventh grade. Previously singled out as the only black student in school, he’s now even more un- usual since he died in a bike accident and turned into a zombie. People are already unnerved by recent weird and possibly related occurrences, such as rampantly spreading super-flus and the endangerment of the bee population, so they avoid Adrian like the plague (it doesn’t help that they’ve never seen a real-life zombie before). The Bork brothers, a couple of old guys with more money than morals, are convinced Adrian holds the key to eternal life and spy on him for their sinister plan. Fortunately, he can rely on his friends, a band of misfits comprised of a beekeeper, a psychic, and a kid detective who talks like he’s starring in a 1940s whodunit film, who ensure his safety and stick by him during his awkward reanimated phase. Preller stylishly delivers a supernatural tale of a middle-schooler who craves normalcy, and environmental issues with some currency make the story even more relatable. Espionage, mystery, and the undead make for a satisfying experience for readers, and they’ll be glad of the hint at a follow-up. QB 

Two Full Reviews for BETTER OFF UNDEAD, Plus Chapter 3, “Drink Plenty of Fluids”

Here’s goes, the full text of the first two reviews for BETTER OFF DEAD along with a sample chapter for the curious.

 

From Booklist, with a STAR!

star-512Preller takes the black-kid-in-a-white-school premise to the next level with Adrian, who is not only African American, but also a zombie. 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. — John Peters

From School Library Journal:

Gr 4-7–Adrian Lazarus is a middle school zombie, the result of an accident that left him “as undead as a toenail and not really thrilled about it.” The book is similar to Paolo Bacigalupi’s Zombie Baseball Beatdown; however, this cautionary tale is more than just a brain-eating gross-out. Set in the not-too-distant future when humanity is suffering from numerous self-inflicted woes, this story’s villains are the Bork Brothers, owners of K & K Industries, “the richest, most powerful corporation on the planet” and also the source of much of the planet’s environmental troubles. Like The Wizard of Oz, to which this book makes frequent allusions, the Bork Brothers control the world behind a curtain of extreme privacy, “pour[ing] their millions of dollars into helping certain politicians win elections.” With one of the brothers dying, they attempt to kidnap Adrian, hoping to glean the secret of cheating death. Adrian foils this plot with the help of his friends, one of whom is a thinly disguised Demeter-like creature. While following these fantastic adventures, readers learn about real environmental issues, such as the vanishing of bees, with the clear message to not be a “zombie,” but to instead take action to protect the planet before it is too late. VERDICT This uproarious middle grade call to action has considerable kid appeal and a timely message. A strong addition to school and public library collections.–Eileen Makoff, P.S. 90 Edna Cohen School, NY
Publisher: Feiwel & Friends * Pages: 288 * Price (Hardcover): $16.99 * Publication Date: October 2017 * ISBN (Hardcover): 9781250066480
EXCERPT NOTE: Below is chapter 3 of 39 chapters. The book is just settling in, and here we address the central dilemma. The actual plot — the new friends, the deeper themes, and the mystery that propels the book forward — come gradually later. Still setting the scene, meeting our main character.

3

 

Drink Plenty of Fluids

 

 

I was a busy guy during the first week of my death. Sort of the opposite of what you’d imagine, right? You’d assume it would be quiet, even relaxing, being dead and all. But not in my unlife. There was a lot to do.

For the first few days after the accident, I was seen by every medical expert in the area, even people from the FBI and mysterious others flashing U.S. Government badges. All day long they wandered into my hospital room to marvel at the new patient. They looked at me and frowned, clucked and murmured, and said helpful things like, “Hmmm, interesting, interesting.” I was a fascinating case, a puzzlement. I was tested, probed, poked, prodded, scanned, questioned, measured, charted and MRI’d until, finally, the folks in their white coats shrugged with a mixture of defeat and boredom. After three sleep-interrupted nights of liquids dripping and machines beeping, they told me to go home. Something about insurance costs. There was nothing to be done. After that, I was assigned to the primary care of Dr. Lewis Halpert. He was some hot-shot specialist flown in from who-knows-where. And so we visited his pristine office for regular check-ups at the K & K MediCorp building. As far as I could tell, I was his only patient.

On the day when my bad news got worse, I played with the controls of a leatherette recliner of the type normally found in a dentist’s office. My mother fiddled with her new watch computer, setting up the connection with my Dad who was still deployed at an unspecified location somewhere in the African continent. Dad couldn’t give us details on his work assignments, it was hush-hush, and we’d often go months without a word. Even so, he was supportive about my situation. Dad said he wanted to come home immediately, but, well, the Corporation couldn’t let him go just yet. He was a second lieutenant in a privatized army, outsourced by the government, and Corporate depended on him. The Skype was Dad’s way of being there, a grim-faced, tight-lipped, square-jawed head on a computer screen.

The room was filled with glass surfaces and glittering utensils. I kept catching my reflection staring at the strange surroundings like a startled woodland creature. Chap-lipped, sore-faced, hideous: zombie me. I missed the identity of my dark skin in our mostly white town. I used to be the black kid, but not anymore. Race, religion, politics, “zombie” trumped them all. After another routine examination –- reflexes, none; eyesight, failing; sense of smell, gone; etc. — Doctor Halpert looked at me, mustache drooping, eyes flickering with indecision. He parked heavily on a stool and rolled close to me, leaning in. “Adrian,” he began, raising his palms as a sign of surrender. “As doctors, we like to think we have all the answers. We possess all this expensive equipment, years of scientific research . . .” his voice trailed off, losing steam. He sighed, checked my mother with a glance, looked hopelessly at my father’s image in the laptop. “But there’s so much we don’t know. That’s just a fact.”

I watched him, gave a nod. At least he was honest.

“By every measure we currently employ, medically speaking, you should be dead,” Dr. Halpert said.

My throat felt dry. My tongue seemed to swell. I tried to swallow.

“You don’t have a heartbeat,” Doctor Halpert stated. “Yet here we are. We have tested you in every conceivable manner. And the fact is,” –- he ran his thumb and index finger down his thick mustache –- “the fact is,” –- repeating himself, struggling to find the words –- “we just . . . don’t . . . know . . . diddly.”

“But, Doctor –-“ my mother interjected.

“Oh, we have theories. We could sit around and speculate all day long. It might be this, it might be that. An exotic strain of virus. Ebola this, Superflu that, cancer-causing agents in the water table, the fallout from fracking, too many genetically-engineered foods, a new strain of dengue fever, or just plain bad luck. All I know, Adrian, is that you are –-“

“—- a freak,” I said.

“No, no, no,” Doctor Halpert said, “A miracle! And as a man of science, it kills me to say that. I don’t believe in miracles, Adrian. I believe in facts, hard data, research. We simply don’t understand how you are walking around today, much less why. Talking. Seeing. Thinking. And, seemingly, living. It makes no scientific sense. When it comes to your case, Adrian, we might as well be in the dark ages, applying leeches and burning incense.”

“Is it . . . contagious?” asked my mother, inching ever so slightly away.

“Not at all,” the doctor replied. “It’s certainly not an airborne virus or anything of that nature. Of course, I wouldn’t let him bite you, ha-ha-ha!” He turned to me, smiling broadly. “You’re not going to bite your mother, are you, Adrian? Of course not!”

I joked, “Yeah, no, I just had a big lunch.”

More laughter, ho-ho-ho, even my dad thought it was a laugh riot. Mom, however, didn’t seem amused. Her mouth laughed, but her eyes didn’t get the joke. Mom’s cell buzzed with an incoming message. She checked it, frowned. She was missing work for this appointment.

Dr. Halpert looked at me, waited. I didn’t know what to say. I rarely did. My thoughts refused to organize themselves; the words wouldn’t cohere. My mind was a buzz, a beehive, a blur, a whirr. I stared at him, blinking, thinking, coming up empty.

My father broke the silence. “Well, that’s not a very satisfactory answer, is it, doctor?”

Dr. Halpert shook his head. “No, it isn’t,” he admitted.

“So what now?”

Doctor Halpert glanced at me, and back to the computer image of his inquisitor. “Summer’s almost gone. School starts in another week or so. Middle school, I guess.”

“You think he can go to school?” my mother chimed in, shock registering in her voice. “You think it’s all right?”

“Life goes on,” the doctor replied. He scratched his cheek with nervous fingers, tugged at his white lab coat. Perhaps Doctor Halpert recognized the irony of his own words –- this crazy situation -– so he quickly added, “I mean, Mr. and Mrs. Lazarus, I don’t see the harm in it. Admittedly, Adrian’s is an unusual case. Bizarre, truly. No one has an explanation for what’s happened to your son. By everything we know, there’s simply no way on earth your boy should be sitting in my office having this conversation. There’s no heartbeat! He’s dried up, blood doesn’t course through his arteries. He’s a zom . . .”

The doctor stopped himself, embarrassed or unwilling to finish the word; so it hung in the air unspoken like a bubble on the verge of bursting. Zombie. I felt a twitch in my stomach. If I had anything to hurl, I would have upchucked right there on the floor.

The thought of going back to middle school, seventh grade, was sickening.

My mother sat staring at me, the downward sickle of a frown on her lips. She made a dabbing gesture on her face, as if applying phantom makeup. “Is there anything we can do to –-“

“Ah, yes! I almost forgot,” Dr. Halpert said, jumping out of his seat cheerfully. He pulled open a cabinet door, then another, reached for bottles, pushed others aside, scanned labels. By the time he was finished, the counter was cluttered with all sorts of medicines and potions. “The good news is, there’s some very simple things we can do to stave off the symptoms.”

The doctor read the question in my eyes.

“I don’t think we can cure you, Adrian –- this is uncharted territory for all of us — but there’s a lot we can do to keep the, urm, illness from progressing. You know, just by using standard over-the-counter products such as creams, lotions, eye-drops, salves, and whatnot. Chap stick, for example, works wonders,” Dr. Halpert said. “And drinking plenty of fluids will help, too.”

My mother listened intently, obviously interested. She finally had something to latch onto after days of helpless hoping. They weren’t going to try to cure my condition. Nope, they just wanted to conceal it.

“Essentially, Adrian, you’ve lost your vital secretions. You’re body is drying up, no juices, and we can’t have that.”

“I see,” my mother murmured, grasping the concept. She said, “It’s like putting on hand moisturizer. I do that every night before bed, Adrian.” She raised her smooth, well-moisturized hands as if they were exhibits in a legal proceeding.

I smiled weakly.

“Exactly,” Dr. Halpert chirped. “We’ve got to keep him . . . squishy.”

Both of them chuckled over the word. Squishy. Ho-ho. Meanwhile, I scratched at the skin on my dry, flaking knees. “Doctor,” I spoke up. “I don’t have a heart beat. My face is falling apart –- my face! Are you seriously telling me to drink lots of water?”

He shook his head. “No, no, no. I mean, yes . . . and no. The truth is, Adrian, water will help. Lots of it. A gallon a day, maybe two in your case. But I have something else in mind, too.” He plucked a pink pad from his front coat pocket, scribbled on it, tore off the top sheet, and handed it to my mother.

She scanned it and read, “Formaldehyde smoothies?”

“Formaldehyde is a common embalming agent,” Doctor Halpert explained. “It’s frequently used in, urm,” he gestured with his hand, pulled again on his thick mustache, and said in a muffled voice, “funeral homes and whatnot.” Cough-cough.

“On dead bodies?” I interrupted.

My mother gaped at me, neck stretched forward, as if to say: Don’t be rude. I felt pressure behind my eyes, a welling up, but no tears came. Not squishy enough, I guess. No juices. Real zombies don’t cry.

The doctor continued, “Formaldehyde helps preserve dead tissue –- though it’s most often used as a fixative for microscopy and histology, but nevermind that. The point is, Adrian, if you drink one of these smoothies every morning, I believe it will help keep you looking better, feeling better, and, urm, smelling fresher.”

He stood to open a window.

For a moment I thought about jumping out of it. But what would be the point?

Dead was bad. Middle school would be worse.

BETTER OFF UNDEAD: Chapter 1, “Mirror, Mirror”

Scan

 

Chapter 1

 

Mirror, Mirror

 

Mirror, mirror, on the wall. Who’s the deadest of them all?

There I was lying on the bed on another sticky summer afternoon, examining my reflection in a hand mirror. I pondered the first day of middle school, just four days away, and gazed at my decomposing face.

It wasn’t too bad, considering the fact I was dead. When you took into account that minor detail, and then compared me to all the other dead people in the world, hey, I was doing all right. Better than all right! Go ahead, dig up a grave, stick the corpse into a wicker chair next to me, then compare and contrast. Do a Venn diagram for all I care. I’ll win that beauty contest eight days a week, twice on Sunday.

That’s me, Adrian Lazarus: way hotter than most dead people.

Compared to living folks, the ones who aren’t full-on zombies, maybe I don’t look so great. Mine was a face only a mother could love, though I was beginning to have my doubts about that. After all, how could she? The whole zombie thing had been tough on Mom. She hadn’t bargained for a zombie with bad breath, body odor, and a hunger for braaaaains. Just kidding about the dietary issues. I’m pretty satisfied with an undercooked burger and greasy fries. Never super hungry these days.

A fly touched down on the windowsill near my bare feet. It lifted off again like a barnstorming pilot, performed a few dives, loop-the-loops, and barrel rolls over my exposed flesh. It buzzed my face before squeezing out a hole in the window screen. Probably just an advance scout for the coming swarm. It will tell the other flies they hit the jackpot. That’s one of the downsides of zombie life –- ha, there’s a phrase, zombie life: an oxymoron, like plastic glass and jumbo shrimp and cafeteria food — I attract flies. They follow me in black clouds like I’m the pied piper. Kneel down before me, for I am the true Lord of the Flies!

I was basking in my misery when the door opened. As usual, my little brother Dane was itching to enter my inner sanctum. As if the closed door meant nothing, and the words KEEP OUT! signaled an open invitation. Dane poked his chubby-cheeked, pug-nosed face into the room. His head was seemingly squished from forehead to chin so that it resembled an old, soft orange. To me, Dane’s smooth, dark, elastic cheeks made him look like a living garden gnome, hideous and adorable at the same time.

Dane was four years old. And unlike his big brother, very much alive.

“Hi,” Dane said. “What are you doing?”

I was doing exactly nothing, but I told him I was reading a comic book. A believable lie since I often flipped through comic books and graphic novels. There were a few comics scattered by my pillow. Reading was doing something, a way of being alone and yet totally (amazingly) connected to something other, something else, some far-away place called anywhere but here, which is where I longed to be. Without turning around, I grabbed a comic book and held it up for Dane.

“See,” I said, swiveling my head, back still to him.

“The Sandman,” Dane murmured with awe. He stepped into the room, emboldened. Dane wore red shorts held up by an elastic waistband. He had on his favorite t-shirt –- the one with a picture of the scarecrow from “The Wizard of Oz.” Inspired by his favorite movie character, Dane often stumbled around the house, prat-falling like the boneless, brainless man of straw, wind-milling his stubby arms, humming the tune from the movie. If I only had a brain.

Concern creased Dane’s face. “Can I come in?” he asked, already in.

I shrugged. All I wanted was to be left alone. But Dane needed to be near, I knew that, even a dope like me can see when he’s loved. It’s better than nothing, by a lot.

“Where’s Mom? Yoga class? Work?” I asked.

“She’s on the phone, talking to somebody about periodic rate caps,” Dane explained, without a flicker of comprehension as to what he was saying. He could join the club. I didn’t know what periodic rate caps were either. That was Mom’s work. Flipping houses, skimming a percentage off the top, moving on like a shark in bloody waters. Buying and selling.

After my father went overseas with Corporate to fight in the Water Wars, and kept re-enlisting, Mom reinvented herself. Today she’s a successful real estate agent. I couldn’t walk three blocks in town without her face beaming out from a FOR SALE sign. “Rosie Lazarus, an agent you can trust.”

Dane reached into his pocket and produced two sour apple candies. My little brother knew the way to my heart — through the gap in my rotten teeth and down into the cavities. He offered both to me.

I took one, told him to keep one for himself, pulled on the twisted ends of the crinkly wrapper, and popped the hard candy into my mouth. I grunted thanks and returned to my horrible mirror.

“I might run away,” I sighed. I could see Dane standing behind me now, reflected in the mirror, pressing closer. I felt his sticky fingers on my back, heard the hard candy rattling against his teeth.

“Don’t go to California, it’s on fire,” Dane said.

“Not all of it,” I said. After years of draught, the wildfires had started up and kept spreading. Nobody was running away to California anymore.

“Oh,” he said, blinking. Dane considered the news in silence. “Can I have your room?”

“Dane!”

His head pivoted on his shoulders as he eyed the walls and sloped ceiling, redecorating in his imagination. He’d probably fill it with Legos. Dane caught my eye in the mirror’s reflection. “Mom would be mad if you ran away.”

Maybe mad, I thought. Or relieved. “You hungry?”

The sweet boy with fat cheeks and loose curls nodded, yes, he was hungry. Dane was always hungry.

I sat up and put my feet on the carpet for the first time in hours. My toes were numb, like dull weights, lead sinkers on a fishing line. No nerve endings. I could take an axe and chop them off, from big toe to little toe, and never feel a thing. Pop ‘em off like grapes from the stem.

Dane took my cold, clammy hand. “Come,” he said, and tugged, dragging me from my dark room into the light.

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Better Off Undead will be published in October, 2017 by Macmillan. Grades 4-8, 275 pages.